RELATIONSHIPS : When work becomes personal – Helping employees cope

We’d all like to work in an environment where everyone gets on with each other, where there is no bullying or harassment, where there is no one who rubs others up the wrong way (metaphorically and some times even literally), where there is no swearing or racism. It would be great if none of our colleagues had an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling or smoking.
Ideally all of the people we work with would have no mental health issues. And they wouldn’t have relationship problems, be struggling to cope with parenting issues or the death of someone close. No one would be suffering from depression or anxiety. Our workloads would be reasonable, we’d know what we should be doing, we would have really supportive manager who cares about us as person, and we’d have at least one good friend at work. There would be no major changes or restructuring in the pipeline.
Sadly for many of us this is not the real world.
Life is getting more stressful for many New Zealanders. Many live in more complex family arrangements which often create additional stress. More parents are coping on their own as solo parents. The “sandwich generation” are grappling with issues relating to their elderly parents while their children are still at home. The challenge of saving for home and the financial pressures of mortgage have been widely discussed in recent months. Longer hours are the norm for many people. For large number the trip to and from work is taking longer adding to the pressure of the day.
The diagram on the next page shows the range of organisational factors and events, combined with pressures in an employee’s personal life, which can have an impact on their work performance.
How can managers deal with the impact of this on worker whose performance has deteriorated because they have lost focus or are distracted by one or more of these issues? Not dealing with them can have major impact on company’s bottom line. This will come from variety of causes including poor customer service, increased mistakes, more accidents, greater use of sick leave, absenteeism, lower morale, increased staff turnover, more employment related litigation. Those working alongside distracted colleague will often be affected. They may have to listen as the person shares their woes, pick up the pieces when their colleague makes mistake, deal with angry customers, cover while the person is away, or take on extra duties when their colleague resigns until the vacancy is filled.
At an organisation level, managers have an obligation under the Health and Safety in Employment Act to take all practicable steps to protect employees from physical or mental harm caused by stress. Where possible they need to eliminate, isolate or minimise potential stressors. This might include ensuring that:
•The work environment is as pleasant as possible with regard to light, heat, noise, dust and dirt.
•Jobs are designed so that they are as interesting, stimulating and enjoyable as possible.
•Employees take adequate breaks.
•Employees feel supported by their manager and colleagues.
•Employees have sense of control over their jobs and get some say in how they do them and in decisions that impact on them.
•Managers provide appropriate acknowledgement for good work and suggestions.
•Individuals are undertaking tasks that match their skills.
•There are good ways of identifying an employee’s development needs and supporting their training and development.
•There are good processes around managing and communicating potential change.
•Where there are workplace conflicts or relationship difficulties there are good processes for dealing with them.
Increasingly New Zealand organisations are realising they also need to focus on the needs of their staff at personal level. This is typically in three main areas:
•Work/life balance.
•Physical health and wellbeing.
•Employee assistance programmes.
Many workers now expect they will be able to balance their personal and work lives in way that was not previously possible. In competitive labour market more employers are recognising that flexibility is important if they wish to attract and retain staff.
The Department of Labour (www.dol.govt.nz/futureofwork) and the EEO Trust (www.eeotrust.org.nz) have excellent website resources on work/life balance.
A recent research report by the EEO Trust identifies that there are productivity gains to be made from work/life balance practices as long as the organisation values and promotes these practices.
There is now much more emphasis on physical wellbeing as factor affecting productivity. Employers are recognising that physical fitness and diet play part in workplace performance. They are offering health checks and assessments, workplace or organisation sponsored exercise programmes such as ‘10,000 Steps’, and are reviewing the nutritional value of food provided in snack vending machines and cafeterias.
Sometimes the issue is an employee having to cope with bullying or harassment of some kind. While training, clearly stated values and behavioural expectations are important, these will not be enough to stop rogue employee acting in an inappropriate way. Whether an employee chooses to report this will depend on their level of self-confidence and the organisational climate. Where an employee does speak up, some organisations choose to conduct an investigation using either one of their HR team or an independent investigator. This can be an exhausting process for all concerned and often ends up with the alleged perpetrator also becoming “victim”.
An alternative model is facilitated process which can help people find ways of resolving the conflict and building their relationships.
The process includes:
1) combined meeting of the party or parties to outline how the group will work and agree on ground rules.
2) meeting with the individuals to identify the issues of concern and start to look at preparing for the way forward.
3) joint meeting of the people to find some ways forward that will be constructive to the parties.
This process is not mediation or negotiation. It attempts to move people from their often entrenched positions and has process that helps people move constructively towards positive outcome. However, there does need to be commitment from the parties to work towards solution.
However often an employee’s productivity is affected by personal issues such as relationship difficulties, family problems, grieving over the death of someone close, and depression or anxiety. These are areas where managers should tread warily unless they have training as psychologist or counsellor. manager shouldn’t:
•Try and diagnose the problem if it is personal.
•Tell the employee what they should do.
•Suggest medication that has worked for you or someone you know.
•Recommend someone you know to provide help.
•Suggest that you meet to have beer to talk about it.
•Try and become counsellor.
Hopefully your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and the manager who has identified that an employee has problem should encourage the employee to use the programme. An EAP is confidential, short term, professional support service set up to assist employees with personal issues which are having negative impact on their performance or relationships at work.
The support is typically provided by independent professional employee assistance providers. It assists employees to:
•Identify personal issues that are impacting on their work.
•Develop solutions and strategies to remove or reduce the issues.
•Help them to return to full efficiency and productivity.
•Avoid consequences of non performance by accepting the assistance of the programme and resolving the issues.
As Employee Assistance Programmes are funded by the employer they are free to the individual. They have the advant

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