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Supporting your team through difficult life situations - is there a magic formula?

Stressful life events don’t have to be work-related to impact on performance or the workplace. It’s human nature to be affected by the challenging events that life can bring our way. Unfortunately, taking them into work is often unavoidable.

As leaders know, when someone in your team is experiencing one of these major stresses emotions can run high. It can be disruptive not only to the individual but the whole team. However, these situations can be successfully managed with the right intervention.

This article identifies some of the most stressful life events and offers tips to support the individuals and minimise the impact on the workplace. You might be surprised, the top 4 have nothing to do with work.

The 5 main causes of stress

The top 5 most stressful life events are:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Major illness
  • Job loss

Some of the ways they can affect the workplace include:

  • Airtime taken up in the team for discussing the person’s problem, even if the person themselves doesn’t want to discuss it, people often feel obliged to ask out of caring or curiosity. It can also be a source of unhealthy gossip.
  • The person will be less emotionally regulated, either in a low mood or angry or up and down, so becoming more unpredictable. This impacts not only their own focus on their work but also their interactions with colleagues and you.
  • If work is the only stable thing they have in their life (as they see it), they will react disproportionately to changes or disruption. This is particularly evident when people are divorcing. Divorce is stressful itself but combine that with some of the side effects: moving, attending to children, money worries - it explains why it’s at number 2. This is true even if the person instigated the divorce. Often in these situations, work becomes the person’s solace, somewhere stable and familiar, so they become less resilient to disruptions and changes than normal.

Tips on supporting team members through life’s stresses

So how can you support people through this time without becoming their counsellor and protect your team from disruption at the same time?

There are some simple things you can do to help:

Speak to them early

When you first hear of the event, sit down with the person and ask them what support they would like from you and the team? This can be a difficult conversation but don’t be afraid of the person getting emotional, nor allow yourself to get drawn into their story.

Your outcome is to find out what support they need. If they ask for something unrealistic, take it away to think about it. The key things worth finding out are:

  • Do they want counselling support? (if your organisation offers it)
  • Do they want to talk about it with the team? This will tell you whether you need to allow time for people to check in or whether you can help by shutting down conversations and keep people focused on work.
  • Do they need time off? Help them and you to plan for things like move dates/ funerals/ hospital trips. Often people are keen to get back to work but this is often counterproductive for them and the team (should they return not ready to actually work), so if you can always offer a few more days than they say they need.

Offer support but let them choose

Set out what support you are prepared to give or offer and let them decide whether they want it. A key feeling people have at this time is a loss of control so forcing them to accept help, or doing their thinking for them (based now what you would like), can make things worse. Instead, offer and let them choose. If they don’t say yes the first time, you can offer again later.

Allow for a short term impact in their performance

Common things that suffer are workplace relationships and productivity. These will bounce back again once the person is through their crisis but it’s common to get frustrated. Instead, plan realistically and expect someone to be out of sorts for at least 6 months. One way of counteracting problems in the team is to focus the person on things they find easy to do during this period. People can operate mainly ok on autopilot, but may struggle to stretch themselves.

In conclusion

There are times when the lines between work and life are increasingly blurred. The things that cause us stress in life inevitably overflow into the workplace - even if they aren’t work related. People need support but there is also a need to draw a line between the role of leader and manager - and that of counsellor.

As a leader, there are a number of interventions you can offer that can help - but equally, there has to be a willingness from the employee to accept this. Our tips are designed to help you manage employees in stressful situations. There’s probably not a magic formula, but with understanding and support, you can help them cope and that’s good for them, their colleagues - and the workplace.

Wider support for employee wellbeing

Reducing stress at work is part of a healthy and productive workplace. If you are concerned about managing stressful situations, you might find our Employee Wellbeing programmes of interest. Find out more here.

How Can We help?

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If you’d like our support in making these ideas work for you and your business, please get in touch.

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