How can you support staff to take care of themselves emotionally while also making sure they are doing their work (or as much of it as they are able to)?
Make yourself available
Often a manager’s first challenge is simply recognizing the warning signs that an employee is going through a difficult time. Invest time in building good relationships with employees so you’ll be able to detect any problems early on. If you maintain an atmosphere of compassion in the workplace, people are more likely to proactively come to you when they’re going through a tough period.
As a leader, you need to be able to show empathy and care, but you also must avoid becoming an employee’s personal confidante. “You want to build a caring relationship with employees, not a friendly relationship,”. Many managers make the mistake of confusing being liked with being trusted or respected. A good manager “has the ability to read and understand other people’s needs and concerns,” while still keeping everyone focused on the major task at hand: accomplishing work.
Listen first, suggest second
Ask what both of you can do together to address the issue of performance during the difficult period. “Try to use the word ‘we,’” as in “How can we support you?” The employee may have an idea for a temporary arrangement — some time off, handing off a project to a colleague, or a more flexible schedule for a few weeks — that is amenable to you.
Check in regularly to make sure they’re doing ok
Whether you’ve settled on a solution yet or not, check in with your employee occasionally (keeping their privacy in mind). Not only will your employee appreciate that you care, you’ll get a better sense of how they are coping.
Whatever arrangements you make, be crystal clear about your expectations during this time period. Be realistic about what they can accomplish and set goals they can meet. For this to be useful it’s got to be specific and it has be grounded in reality.
Be transparent and consistent
Be conscious of the fact that other employees will take note of how you treat the struggling colleague and will likely expect similar consideration if they too run into difficult times in the future.
Principles to Remember
- Set a tone of compassion in the workplace. It will not only give your employees confidence to approach you with struggles, but also give you the ability to spot warnings signs.
- Be creative with solutions. A flexible schedule may allow a person to maintain their output without much disruption.
- Check in from time to time, both to reassure the employee and to make sure that further adjustments or accommodations aren’t needed.
- Act more like a therapist than a manager. Your heart may be in the right place, but don’t get involved in your employee’s personal problems.
- Make promises you can’t keep.
- Treat similar situations among employees differently. Employees will note — and resent — the inconsistency.
Adapted HBR July 2018 O’Hara