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Personal Issues in the Workplace

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

We're frequently expected to keep our personal matters from interfering with our professional lives. That makes sense when we don't want our organizational leadership to know about our private battles or when our personal information is completely irrelevant to the professional tasks at hand.

The truth is, our personal matters will always be related to our work performance. Depression and anxiety not only change the types of decisions that we make, but it changes the way our brains work.

In an ideal world, leadership would have the Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) to understand how these factors drive employees, rather than see these factors as threats to their business. For example, I knew a young woman who lost her father while working on an important workplace project. She juggled the project and her family needs as best as possible, but ended up submitting the completed product just after the deadline. This late submission caused the company to lose the funding it was competing for - and this young lady was blamed. The leadership knew she lost her father but expected her alone to complete the project, and then showed no understanding of why or how she didn't meet their expectations. Not only did that add to the stress that the young woman was facing, but it dented morale for the employees who sympathized with the young woman.

Of course we don't always want our professional sphere to know what we're going through; some of it may be too personal to share, whereas other times employees fear that their management would see them in a negative light for those struggles.

The Compassionate Manager

There are also times when we hear about a manager or leader who has managed to develop excellent relationships with their employees. The employees CAN and DO tell the manager about what they're going through (perhaps to varying degrees of detail), and this type of manager offers support and non-judgmental attitudes to help the employee get through it. This can include time off, finding other employees to help, a little more cushion in project expectations (without taking away from the quality of the final product), or even simple shows of compassion. Employees trust this type of manager and feel valued by them. In this type of relationship, employees have frequently reported how much they respect this type of manager and would follow their leadership eagerly.

This type of manager may protect the employee's information depending on the nature of the employee's struggle - especially if it's something considered more taboo - or it may be more commonly known in the organization if the employee's challenge is considered more typical.

Taboo versus "Normal" Problems

We're more likely to share problems that are considered universal (like grief) versus problems that are still misunderstood or considered something that could reflect badly on us or our family. The more "bizarre" something is, the less likely we want to share out of fear that it could be held against us and our performance. One example would be a parent not wanting to discuss their children's behavioral challenges because of how they fear others would question their parenting and treatment of their children.

Even more taboo is a mental health issue, where an employee may be experiencing communication challenges, problems with maintaining a stable or positive mood, or even making professional choices. In an ideal situation, an employee could tell a manager about what they're going through, especially related to how it impact their jobs. Aside from the employee taking the responsibility to seek outside help (when necessary) and have a plan to fix it, the manager would ideally be able to support their ability to fix it.

Why should the manager care? Because we're meant to seek relationships with other people rather than to see them as tools. Seeing them as tools to do their jobs is a symptom of the systemic neo-narcissism that is rampant in our organizations. When the employee feels valued by this type of manager, they are more likely to perform their duties much better than someone who feels like they are under-valued, and they are less likely to leave the company.

Real World vs. Ideal World

Even though this post is talking about compassion, it doesn't mean to throw all expectations to the wind. The best companies have a culture of high support and high expectation: offering whatever is feasible to help the employee succeed, but also expecting success because of that support. An employee can be held accountable after being given plenty of support and not being able to meet the expectations to which they agreed.

I'm writing about a lot of Ideal World stuff here, and not a lot of companies have that ability in their current states. In the real world, organizations can continue to train their managers on E.Q. and making human connections over pushing trendy "here's how to be a LEADER" material at them. It's easy to forget that we need to focus on the followers.

Additionally, organizations can proactively put processes and cultural values in place so that employees can take care of themselves in a way that helps them before their personal challenges impact their workplace behaviors. In other words, help them be healthier before their problems get so bad that these issues impact the quality of their personal and work lives.

Practical tips include:

  • Encouraging "mental health" days when appropriate

  • Allowing sick days without pressure

  • Encouraging team members to cover each other's needs when appropriate (boundaries may need to be discussed to ensure that workers are able to help each other without doing the job that someone else is expected to do)

  • Introducing positive news, information, or even snippets of entertainment in the workplace such as reading uplifting stories, celebrating accomplishments, and making validating/affirming remarks about co-workers.

  • Support exercise and healthy eating in the work environment, such as encouraging a walk around the building or offering healthy treats. Team members may also be encouraged to bring in healthy food (with allergy considerations)

  • If possible, choose or arrange office space so that people can have access to sunlight.

  • Model compassion. Show support and belief that employees can meet their goals. There is a time and a place for also reminding them that support begets expectations, such as if they continue to receive support but offer no tangible results. Could be in private (i.e. an employee who isn't improving) or in a group setting (reminding everyone that we're all here to do our best for the team)

  • Get on the same page with others through non-accusatory conversations. Never assume you know what someone else is thinking or feeling. Example: "Hey, I noticed that you seemed to snap at your co-worker in the meeting earlier and I just wanted to make sure everything was okay. We all struggle from time to time and that can show up in the way we treat others and we may not even realize it. Do you feel like you need to revisit the issue with your co-worker so that they feel comfortable collaborating with you on this project?" (this is a rough example... it depends on the type of relationship you have with an employee to determine when and how you want to say this).

Please list other examples in the comments below!

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