People Management

All employees have their hard-knocks: how do you address them?

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

All people, employees or not, will experience some rough times in their life and they might happen while you work together. Some of them are unavoidable on the long run: an illness, losing someone close, an accident, while others just tend to happen these days: an unfulfilling personal life, a divorce or a break up that shakes them. I’ve seen managers and co-workers approaching this in two ways:

The “robot” approach

Pretend people are robots and ask for the same productivity no matter what. We don’t discuss personal matters at work, we just deliver. Sadly, this is still a dominant attitude in many companies worldwide: pretend nothing is happening and have the leaders bark at their staff to get a bigger bone from the master headquarter. Employees that put up with this (often juniors in their role or anxious personalities) try to accelerate an engine that’s overheated. After a while they run into burnout or if they are smart enough, resign before getting there.

Employment ads usually describe such a workplace as ‘highly competitive, where only the best succeed’ – people with performance anxiety will love it! The problem is these people will crash suddenly or disappear with the minimum possible lead time, as imposed by their contract. That leaves the team / project short staffed with no transition time, most likely on the critical path of the project plan.

When people are going through a rough patch in a competitive environment or when social protection is very bad, they try to hide it. Just like in nature, where wounded animals which are not predators try to hide their problem, so they are not targeted as prey. They might take pills to help them focus, cut down on their sleep (‘cause who needs the body’s main self-regulating natural mechanism that helps the brain recover). All this while the underlying cause is not addressed.

The “human” approach

Accept we are humans, shit happens and any storm passes. We can be supportive, flexible and adjust. There are 2 possible scenarios when you go for this approach and I’ve experienced them first hand: the storm passes, people appreciate they were given a safe haven during the storm and stay with the team OR the storm passes and they simply leave, because they have realised they can’t be there anymore, but they will be willing to make a proper transition. Even in the latter case, the attrition is diminished or postponed, so it’s still a better option. Your reputation as a leader or employer will increase, making it easier to get new resources and after a while, same people might want to return.

Support in this case is not pep talk. As a leader / employer you can do more:

  • Acknowledge the situation for what it is (funny how acknowledging facts seems to be the first step in a lot of situations). Stop saying: “oh, X is tough; she can handle it”. Every person you work with has a limit beyond which, that person crashes; and you don’t need to find it.
  • Offer a flexible work arrangement – from location to working hours. Stop paying for seat warmers. We pay people for what they deliver and for the quality of their work, not for being available for some specific 8 hours.
  • Encourage people to go to therapy or take the treatment they need and offer them the flexibility they need to do so.
  • Switch their activity and either oversee critical work or ask someone else to step up to the challenge. You are lucky enough to see a developing situation which you can still address and also have the time to build a plan B. Don’t ignore this opportunity.
  • By showing support, you create a safe environment, that will echo on the labour market. As people advance through the age, while building experience at the same time, they will be challenged in their personal life. As an employer or team lead, you want to work with experienced staff so you have to be aware and supportive.

Alright, so it’s possible that in 2 out of 3 cases people might leave the team / project / company. What you can do is get the best terms when that happens: transition time (maybe you even get to close the project successfully in the mean time), less impact to none on the timeline, good reputation and more. It’s easy: just stay human!

Have you ever been in such a situation? How was it handled?

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