When Life Gets in the Way

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 - 09:35

Dealing with an employee’s personal problems is a difficult yet crucial part of managing a team, writes Leon Gettler

Dealing with life’s ups and downs is now the big challenge for managers. A worker can be unfocused at work because they are going through a messy divorce, or their child has a learning disability. Maybe their eldest has a drug problem. Perhaps they are not putting in because they have a chronic illness and are in constant pain. Maybe they are suffering from depression. Or alcoholism.

How do managers cope? Do they say it’s that person’s personal issue and they have to sort it out? But what happens if it affects the rest of the workforce?

And the evidence suggests it’s getting worse. In Australia, for example, 43 per cent of marriages will end in divorce. One in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85. Cancer accounts for about three in 10 deaths in Australia. With an ageing population, people are more likely to have to take time off work to look after an ageing parent who might have suffered a stroke or a heart attack.

And it is estimated mental health issues can cost Australian business a staggering $12 billion to $13 billion a year. Research by Beyond Blue has found more than six million working days a year are lost because of one mental illness alone – depression – and that each worker whose depression is untreated costs their employer $9660.

People experiencing symptoms of depression can be away from work more often than those with ulcers, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, back problems, lung problems or gastrointestinal disorders. Apart from depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, alcoholism, drug-use disorder and bipolar disorder would be the most common mental health issues, and that inevitably spills over into the workplace.

Whether they like it or not, managers will have to deal with these issues, if only because it could affect the rest of the workplace, not to mention the business.

AIM Victoria & Tasmania executive general manager Tony Gleeson says the vagaries have become more of an issue in workplaces over the past 10 years. It’s definitely a trend.

“It’s been a difficult time for some people and some have suffered through these things and then it’s caught up with them,” Gleeson says. “There is more flexibility in working hours which has allowed people to come back to the workplace, but when issues arise, there is no one at home to address it. People have to make quick decisions.”

He says organisations need two things to deal with these issues: the right structures to accommodate these vagaries that could take people away from work and systems so people have somewhere to turn to for support.

“You’ve always got to take it situation by situation. If it’s a family issue or a personal issue, you really have to be flexible in that environment,” he says. “It’s also about having people at more senior levels making sure that people are aware of activities, so that other people can jump in and be able to take over those activities. So it does start with not having a single point of knowledge in the organisation.

“Also, people who might have senior roles would have people who know where things are, someone who can get into files, someone who knows what’s generally going on in the team. It’s almost like having a second in charge without necessarily giving them that title.”

The manager also has to show they are onside and listening. “Generally, you have to be very realistic about what’s happening with the individual and you’ve got to give them some empathy in that space with so much happening now,” he says.

Management consultant Kevin Dwyer, who runs the Change Factory in Melbourne, says there is now an expectation workplaces will deal with it. Work and life for many have become inextricably linked. And there are many organisations that would see themselves as compassionate and want to be regarded as employers of choice. They would deal with it.

“The thing that people have to do in any of the circumstances is tackle the issue front on,” Dwyer says. “If you have come to me and you notice your co-worker has an issue that might be because of the messy divorce, then I as a manager would have to go and have a chat with the person. It would be a delicate conversation and there’s a whole bunch of issues about how you have that conversation and go about doing it, but you have to have it.

“You can’t shirk the conversation because you are not helping the individual or their work colleagues. You have to have the conversation to see what you can work out, how to deal with the problem and what you can afford to do to help.”

A lot of it, he says, depends on the size of the organisation. “If I am in an organisation of 10 people, then what I can afford to do to help may be less than in an organisation with 100 people. I could perhaps offer them to take two weeks off without pay or something else, whereas if I am in a 100-people organisation, I could be more generous and say take a week off with pay and sort yourself,” he says.

Other examples might include decreasing their workload or helping them get help. For mental health issues, the Australian Human Rights Commission has a report, Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers, recommending a number of steps.

Managers can talk to the worker about the condition and offer the option of bringing a support person to the meeting. All discussions, held at an appropriate time and place, have to be kept strictly confidential. If the manager feels uncomfortable, they could bring in a health professional, like a psychologist, social worker or occupational therapist.

If the person doesn’t want to talk about it, they should ask if they need help. They can also change work schedules or change aspects of their task. They also have to ensure work colleagues are not overloaded with extra work.


This article appeared in the March 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.