Real people and personal problems at work

When you lead and manage you are dealing with people; real people with hopes, dreams and lives outside of work.

Years ago, managers, somewhat naively expected you to drop any consideration of the personal when you walked in through the office door.

No one ever did of course, they just suppressed their feelings about what was going on outside work.  Or they tried to!  Sometimes, with uncomfortable effects!  Many of us can tales of bosses who periodically became monsters and then you found out about the rows he was having with his wife.  In those days bosses were usually male.   In that world, all kinds of things went unsaid and unacknowledged.

These days, in most organizations, it is usually accepted that there will be times when the personal will impact on the professional.

In reality, most of us do know how to keep the two in balance.  But as a leader or a manager you need to recognise that personal life does impact on work.

For example, exhausted new parents suffering from lack of sleep due to a crying infant aren’t able to be as creative as they’d like. Workers who are dealing with problems at home often find their minds wandering, and don’t do their best work. Employees who are in pain — either physical or emotional — don’t operate at peak levels.

It is up to us to do our best to keep our employees functioning at their best at work and helping them to contribute when outside circumstances press upon them.   If they are valuable to the organization it is up to us to help them through some of the personal issues that interfere with their ability to do their best work.

Here are some tips;

1. Listen
Often it’s enough just to listen to the employee with a sympathetic ear – it really does help.  It isn’t up to us to solve their personal problems but we can show we care. .

2. Refer  

Many organizations these days offer a counselling service – this is the time to encourage an employee to take up what is on offer. Reassure them about privacy – this should be a requirement for any reputable counselling provider.  If nothing is available inside, then could you help them find a service outside of the organisation that they can access for themselves?  If the problem is medical then persuade them to see their physician

3. Accommodate short-term needs and be flexible.
This is the time to be flexible.  But if you are making special arrangements think through how this will impact on others and agree with the employee how long the arrangements will be in place. Agree how you will explain them to colleagues.   Give short-term time off if it’s needed (use vacation or sick time if it’s available), consider a more flexible working week (working four long days for example) and home working,

5. Temporarily assign an employee to different work that is better suited for the employee’s current state of mind.
This sounds dramatic but it may be the answer.  For example, someone who is under a lot of pressure may not be best placed right now to manage a very intense project.  Or for an employee who travels a lot for business, you may temporarily assign the employee to a job that requires little or no travel.

6. Make it clear what are short-term arrangements.
It’s important to make it clear to the employee what are short-term and temporary special arrangements and not a substantial change to the job.  It is best to put this in writing.  Don’t make it a threat — just make clear that that you’re willing to make these changes for a while to help.  Afterwards you will expect them to go back to delivering their previous level of performance.

7. Keep in touch with the employee during the crisis.
Monitor the situation to ensure that the employee is taking steps to resolve the situation. Provide encouragement and positive reinforcement along the way.

8. When the crisis has passed make sure the focus returns to work. 

Encourage and congratulate the employee on making it through a difficult time. But provide feedback if you think there is more to do to meet the needs of the work.  Provide assistance to help the employee get back the focus they may have lost. 

We are all individuals with our own personal strengths.   Management is about achieving business results with people and that means you have to work with people in the round.  This includes accepting that the personal will sometimes have to take priority over the professional.
Wendy Mason works as a personal and business coach, consultant and blogger. She has managed or advised on many different kinds of transition and she has worked with all kinds of people going through personal change. If you would like her help, email her at or ring ++44(0)2084610114 or ++44(0)7867681439