human resources

How to support an employee going through a tough time

Abiramie Sathiamoorthy /

Inevitably when it comes to managing people within your business, you’ll come across a situation where one of your employees will experience some sort of unexpected personal issue or hardship throughout their employment.

We’re all familiar with the expectation to not let our personal lives affect our work but as much as we might have this expectation of our employees, it’s not always a realistic or reasonable one. Even from the employee’s perspective, as best as they might try to not let their personal issues affect their work, certain circumstances might make this an almost impossible task.

These situations can be difficult for employers on a number of fronts – seeing your valued employee go through a rough time is bad enough while the impact of their absence and sometimes inconsistent and unpredictable nature of their contributions can also be difficult to manage and work through.

As an employer, balancing your business priorities and the welfare of your employees can be challenging in such situations. However, showing compassion and being empathetic to your employee’s current circumstances are a good step in the right direction to help you navigate things.

The best way of tackling these scenarios is to not apply a one-size-fits-all approach. Make sure you maintain open communication at all times in order to determine how to best work through the issues with your employee and not in isolation of their input. What works for one employee won’t necessarily be the best solution for another.

For a lot of people, when things are crumbling around them or they’re experiencing difficult things outside of work, work can be the one constant and stable thing in their otherwise, chaotic life. Hence, providing that stability for them through continued meaningful and structured work can be just the thing they need to help see them through a personal crisis. It’s important, however, to clearly outline some ground rules in this instance:

  1. Be really clear on what they need to deliver and make sure these deliverables can be achieved given what’s going on around them in their personal lives and the time they can realistically commit to work.
  2. If they need to be away from work for intermittent periods, try and work out a reasonable and predictable schedule to stick to.
  3. Make sure to communicate any changes in schedules for when an employee will be at work to the wider team so they know when they can contact a particular employee.
  4. Finally, establish a workflow with other employees/managers when an employee can’t be reached to avoid any communication issues and ensure things still get done.

For other employees a solid period of time-off may be what’s required instead. This unexpected absence in your business can throw things off a bit, particularly in a small business environment, but it doesn’t need to be the end of the world and can be managed more easily than you might initially think.

  1. Work through immediate priorities and try and do as much handover as possible.
  2. Where possible, distribute the workload amongst other employees in the team rather than dumping all the responsibility onto one individual.
  3. Continue to keep them informed via email of things that they would’ve been kept across if they were at work – they may or may not check their emails whilst away but this way, when they return to work they can easily catch up. Don’t faze them out of communications or decisions.

Sometimes unexpected circumstances like this can really expose your business to the risk of being single-point sensitive. If you only have one person in the business who knows how to take care of a critical function such as payroll, for example, you’re really going to feel their absence, which could result in unjustified resentment towards the employee going through a difficult time. Try and avoid this by ensuring core functions can be performed by at least one other person in your business or have the process clearly documented so that someone else can perform the basics of critical processes like ensuring everyone still gets paid on time! This will, again, minimise any negative impact an unexpected absence can create.

Being a compassionate employer and showing the appropriate level of empathy will help ensure that your business operations don’t suffer when one of your employees goes through a difficult time. Look out for their personal welfare, keep them engaged whether they take time off or continue to work, and provide them with the necessary support they need to help get them back to work normally as quickly as possible.

Janelle McKenzie and Abiramie Sathiamoorthy are the founders of HR firm E&I People Solutions.

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