Long reads

HR's guide to personal crisis

28 Jun 2017 By Jo Faragher

Sharing personal problems at work is no longer taboo. People Management examines what that means for employers – and how HR can help in eight key crises

Sarah* worked in the HR department of a well-known company when a terrorist attack hit one of its overseas plants. Four of its UK employees were killed, and “HR was mobilised, with no regard as to whether we might be the best people to deal with it”.

Sarah was asked to support the wife of an employee who died in the incident; through everything from watching his body come off a plane to soothing her during late-night phone calls. But when Sarah herself developed post-traumatic stress disorder after absorbing the spouse’s grief, her boss simply told her she should be more resilient and get back to dealing with her day job. “They hadn’t thought about the impact the attack might have on the respondents. We did get some counselling, but were essentially told to get on with it,” she says.

Sarah ended up being diagnosed with depression and was off work for seven months. She believes that, had her managers shown more emotional intelligence and recognised the issues she was struggling with, she might have recovered more quickly. Her case is a salutary lesson in the huge impact personal issues – whether they originate in work or outside it – can have on both individuals and their employers.

Whether it’s struggling with the effects of divorce or worrying about paying off ever-increasing debts, employees are more than just the professional façade they present. And it is in organisations’ power to address the disconnect between life and work that allows such problems to flourish.

Creating a culture that is more open to the entirety of the human experience – including the unpleasant and difficult parts, as well as the stuff of everyday office small talk – is vital as the lines between our work and personal lives become more blurred. “The notion of work-life balance has diminished – it’s just life,” observes Richard Peachey of conflict management company CMP Resolutions. “We’re called upon to work outside traditional office hours, so it’s no surprise that people are more open to bringing their whole selves to work.”

This is a long way from the workplace of even two decades ago, when discussing something as sensitive as a divorce or a miscarriage would be more likely to elicit shock than sympathy. These days, we have role models such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, who shared her grief over the sudden loss of her husband with not just the workforce but a global audience, shortly after which the company launched a ground-breaking policy on bereavement leave, doubling its provision to 20 days.

“As we’ve moved to a knowledge economy, we’re asking different things of people – we’re asking them to use their hearts and minds, to bring creativity and to work in teams, and that’s not something we can switch on and off. There’s far more fluidity of boundaries between home and work,” says Laura Harrison, director of strategy and transformation at the CIPD. “This highlights the importance of trust in our relationships at work – if someone is bringing their ‘whole’ self, they’re bringing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses as well, and they need to know that’s not going to be exploited.”

Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD president and professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, suggests many workers actually feel more comfortable talking to HR than they do to their line managers. “With something like a bereavement, you may feel it’s easier to bring it up because you have to take time off, but you’d definitely be less comfortable talking about the breakdown of your marriage or a mental health issue,” he says. Cooper is now working with business schools to embed more teaching around emotional intelligence into management courses. He adds: “We have a huge lack of managers who have the social and interpersonal skills to deal with things like this. The generation we have tends to be bottom-line oriented, good task people.”

Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP, agrees that line managers need more support in handling employees’ issues. “We need to stop labelling these conversations as ‘difficult conversations’; these are normal conversations,” he says. “We should coach line managers to have these conversations whenever they can – not just asking how someone is performing, but how they are as a person. Is anything going on that might impact on their ability to be at work?”

There are two other factors at play here. The first is that in today’s more enlightened workplace, people are more likely to understand that mental health issues can, and should, be discussed, and are unlikely to get better over time if untreated. Almost a third of calls to Validium’s employee assistance programme (EAP) lines are from employees concerned about their mental or emotional wellbeing. This includes feelings of anxiety or stress, as well as concerns about conditions such as bipolar disorder.

Lesley Challinor, business relationship manager at Validium, believes the figures are a clarion call to empower managers in particular: “By educating managers that it’s not their role to solve the employee’s problems, but it is their role to help them self-solve or use the support services in place, they become empowered to help in the right way. The more we all feel able to ask for support when first needed, the less likely short-term feelings of distress about something happening outside of work are to turn into a long-term mental health issue, such as depression.”

The second factor is that the younger generation is increasingly likely to be open with colleagues and employers about what’s happening at home. “The older, more traditional generation don’t tend to talk about things. It’s more alien to them,” says Winwood. “Millennials have grown up sharing everything and it helps to grasp that and use it to rebrand the culture of the organisation.”

But whatever nature of problem we face, the fact is that many of the personal crises that happen to employees affect us all at some point. Almost a fifth of employees have lost sleep because of financial concerns, according to a recent CIPD/Close Brothers survey, and around 40 per cent of first marriages end in divorce – to cite just two examples. “It’s about understanding that life comes in waves,” says Nic Marks, founder of employee experience platform Happiness Works. “If we want employees to be flexible for us, we have to give that flexibility back.” Marks believes employers need to weigh up the short-term cost of giving someone space (whether time off or flexible working) to deal with a difficult issue, with the longer-term financial impact of replacing someone who has ended up leaving because juggling their personal problem and work became too much.

How a manager or HR professional reacts to an employee’s issue will, of course, depend on its nature. Former HR director Jacqui Watson once had to support a female employee who was undergoing a gender transition. “We tried all the subtle ways of dealing with it, talking to her colleagues individually. But we ended up calling a team meeting to get it out in the open, and this marked a positive shift in how people perceived her transition,” she says. Watson points to the fact that, sometimes, HR practitioners’ instinctive reaction is to keep issues confidential, as that’s traditionally been core to their role. “But people are human and we all go through myriad situations. Everyone brings everything to work and it’s HR’s job to help managers get the best out of people.”

And while no one argues that empathy is a bad thing, can too much compassion generate chaos in the office? Creating some structure around the support you give, particularly for managers, can help deal with difficult personal issues sensitively, but without causing disruption. At insurance company LV, line managers have a guidance pack to help them support staff through difficult times. Jill Smith, leadership development manager, says: “It gives them guidance on the signs to look out for and where they might want to offer support, stay close to the individual and have five-minute check-ins. There is not a formal tick list or process – it’s about a line manager knowing their team and staying close to them at difficult times, whether through bereavement or something else that is life-changing for that individual.”

LV’s managers are also encouraged to flag other support systems, such as the company’s EAP or external organisations such as Cruse Bereavement Care or their GP. “It’s about helping them see they don’t need to suffer in silence – there is support within the company, but there are also professionals they can talk to,” adds Smith.

Ultimately, whether staff feel comfortable in sharing their grief or frustration at difficult points in their life will depend on the organisation’s culture. This emanates from the very top, according to Harrison. “Leaders need to create an environment where staff can bring their whole selves to work, where they have room to grow, where they can be vulnerable,” she concludes. Your colleagues may never go through something as traumatic as Sarah, but giving them the space to grieve, to heal or to talk about a significant life event could make all the difference.

Caring responsibilities

“Having support was phenomenal”

With around 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK, an employee struggling to balance home and work life may be more common than you think.

Katy Walton, leadership and talent development manager at Nationwide Building Society, found herself supporting her mother with round-the-clock care after she was diagnosed with brain tumours. Five days’ immediate leave was followed by “five months of juggling her care with two children”, says Walton. “It was such a trying time, but my employer allowed me to work flexible days, and gave me access to counselling.” She was then offered a six-month career break to nurse her mother, describing the difference the support made as “phenomenal”.

The experience of HR business partner Donna* was very different. Her daughter developed deep vein thrombosis when pregnant with her first child and fears over her suffering a blood clot with her second contributed to pre-natal depression. At 37 weeks, she attempted to take her own life. Donna took her annual leave on days when her son-in-law could not be there, so she was not alone. “I was not able to tell people at work as I didn’t know how,” she says. “I was stressed and some days didn’t want to go to work or be at home. I didn’t think it was safe to talk about family issues at work for fear of how it would look – would it be seen as an excuse for not meeting targets?”

It is not uncommon for people to hide the fact that they are carers because they are worried it will damage their career, says Barbara Wilson, founder of Working with Cancer, which supports employees caring for someone with the disease. “Any manager, if they notice someone behaving in an uncharacteristic way, should have a chat about what is going on,” she says. Employers should be more explicit about the support they offer people with caring responsibilities and have a carers’ policy in place, says Wilson.

Rachel Suff, employment relations adviser at the CIPD, says an ageing population means the number of employees caring for relatives will increase: “HR therefore has a critical role to play in reviewing the current support for carers, understanding the make-up of their workforce and the caring responsibilities of their own employees, and reacting accordingly.”


“If you open up, people are there to listen and support”

Linda Lavery lost both her parents in quick succession 10 years ago, when she was working as an employee relations manager in retail. It was an experience that fundamentally changed how she viewed work.

“I lost my dad to bowel cancer, which was bad enough, but three months later my mum was diagnosed with the same thing and passed away a year later,” says Lavery, who is now director of the Liverpool branch of consulting network The HR Dept. Work gave her a focus that was much needed when she was going through a bad time. She adds: “Everything seems surreal and slightly irrelevant when someone’s died, but you have to realise other people are getting on with their lives as normal and, if they have an issue at work, as an HR manager you need to deal with it with full consideration for how that employee is feeling.”

Lavery believes that having been through bereavement herself, she is more empathetic towards employees who are enduring the same thing. “I’m right in there with them,” she says. “If someone’s been affected by cancer, I know all the jargon that comes with it. I had no idea that a syringe driver existed and I didn’t know that the pathway was an end-of-life plan until it got to that stage with my dad.” She encourages employees to take off as much time as they need, but accepts that everyone’s needs will be different.

One of the worst things managers and colleagues can do, she adds, is to say nothing because they don’t know what to say. “If you open up, people are there to listen and support. Even if there’s no ‘official’ support, such as counselling available through work, having someone to talk to is vital. It will then encourage others to be open about their experiences.”


“Work can help you through it”

“Divorce is a process, not an event,” says Sue Atkins, a parenting and divorce coach who has supported hundreds of clients through marriage breakdowns. “Rather than pretending that it’s not happening to your employees, it would be so much more helpful if employers handled divorce well.” When it comes to supporting staff who are going through this major life change, she adds, accepting that their productivity may be affected in fits and starts and giving them the space to talk about their frustrations is crucial.

“If one partner is dragging their heels, for example, and there are numerous court appearances, this can take an enormous mental toll. On the flip side, work can be an important part of getting through it for them – it’s their one piece of stability,” says Atkins.

HR business partner Adekola Nafiu points out that many employees will be worried about the financial impact of a divorce and will need reassurance that their job situation is safe. When he supported an employee through a divorce, he ensured they took compassionate leave with pay to enable her to settle the separation process.

HR’s support with the comparatively trivial aspects of divorce is also important. “Once the divorce process was completed, I encouraged the employee to submit a request for change of name to enable her to get closure, and update the company records accordingly to prevent future issues that may come up,” says Nafiu.

Former HR director Jacqui Watson went through two divorces while working for two employers, whose approach was in stark contrast. She says: “It was so much easier in a culture that was open, where there was high trust. Divorce does affect your work, and if you can say ‘today is a bad day’ without worrying about being judged, that makes a huge difference.”


“People in denial can be manipulative”

For HR professionals, dealing with an employee’s addiction can be a path fraught with issues; they must balance the needs of the organisation – health and safety and legal compliance, among others – with offering support to the individual concerned. But where employers can be a vital crutch, there is a long-term advantage in terms of the employee’s loyalty and engagement once they return to work, says Dr Mike McCann, occupational health physician at treatment service Castle Craig Group.

Creating a culture where addicts can open up about their issues starts with a drug and alcohol policy, he adds. “Addicted people in the denial stage can be manipulative. You reinforce that denial if you don’t have a supportive policy; it makes it more difficult to handle if the person feels fear or is intimidated by a policy or feels they’re likely to be punished. Your policy should make it clear that the employer is there to help.”

Training managers to be observant, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to addiction, will also help. “Managers should document events – turning up consistently late, or regularly intoxicated – so they can use these in discussion with the employee,” says McCann. And while there are certain cases where allowing the employee to continue in a role would be out of the question – for example, driving under the influence on work time – often an addict will be able to continue to work, or benefit from time off for treatment.

By the time any addiction is visible in the office, it will already be causing problems elsewhere in that person’s life, adds McCann. Pointing out the effects of their addiction, but offering support – whether directing them to an external charity or paying for professional treatment – is far more powerful than ignoring the issue.

Long-term illness

“You don’t want to alarm anyone”

Being diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma aged 32 “changed my world”, says Benjamin Black, a freelance HR consultant. Last November, he had a scan on his back – after experiencing pain he had put down to a sports injury. Six months of chemotherapy ensued before he was given the all-clear from cancer, but it will take even longer, he says, to get back to normal.

“One of the biggest issues is the uncertainty. You might think you are going to be OK to come in a day or two after treatment, but because it’s cumulative the body gets weaker as it’s fighting and you just don’t know how you are going to feel,” he says. From an employment point of view, “it’s about planning and honesty on both sides”.

The effects of a physical condition such as cancer are one thing, but the psychological effects – and the way an individual deals with them – vary hugely and are often overlooked. For Black, it was the period between his scan and diagnosis that was the hardest. “It’s very lonely and you don’t want to alarm people,” he says. And while he believes organisations should encourage employees to be open about any issue they are having, “it’s very much an individual decision because some people do not like to talk about being ill”, he says.

While working as an HR manager, Alice Hemingway had to deal with a team member with manic and post-natal depression, as well as bipolar disorder. Doctors’ appointments at short notice, lateness, breakdowns at work, sensitivity and frustration with other co-workers for lack of understanding and empathy were among the issues she had to manage.

“I called various helplines to seek advice on the conditions, to ensure I was equipped with as much knowledge as possible to try and understand how she might be feeling, and contacted Acas to ensure our duty of care was appropriately reflected,” says Hemingway. It wasn’t about ticking boxes for her, but about genuinely wanting to be a friend. “You may not be able to cure these conditions or emotions, but you can help by listening,” she says.


“The whole thing was forgotten about”

While suffering a miscarriage can be traumatic enough, an additional layer of complexity comes in when (and how) to tell colleagues what has happened. After suffering two miscarriages in the later stages of pregnancy, HR adviser Ellie says it’s “not always the best approach” to avoid the truth, although each case is clearly different.

She was concerned, she says, about colleagues asking about her wellbeing when she returned to work. “I wanted people to be aware of the situation, so that they wouldn’t ask too many questions, but it was assumed that it was a big secret,” she says.

After her first miscarriage, she took just one day off work and, on her return, her operations director – the only person who knew what had happened – told her that miscarriages happen to a quarter of women. “I think it was supposed to be comforting, but it suggested that it’s common and shouldn’t be upsetting… Employers need to be guided by the person going through it on how long they need off and what communication they want.”

During her second miscarriage, Ellie’s concentration was affected, as she knew after her 12-week scan that her baby was unwell. On this occasion, she says her workplace was “very supportive” to begin with, but that soon changed. “I was quite anxious a couple of months later when the grief began to sink in, by which point the whole thing was forgotten about at work,” she says.

As Ellie’s experience makes clear, many of the psychological effects of miscarriage might not manifest for some time, which makes regular check-ins vital. But while the legal situation regarding employment rights for those who miscarry is relatively straightforward – there is no statutory right to maternity leave or pay until 24 weeks, with sickness absence procedures applying before this point – there is a wider lack of advice for employers on how to talk about the topic and, equally importantly, what not to say. In such a situation, as Ellie says, the best thing to do is to ask.


“We’ve made debt normal”

The plight of those who are ‘just about managing’ dominated the general election campaign. The bad news for crusading politicians is their numbers are likely to keep rising: a survey by the Understanding Society of 40,000 UK households found that 21 per cent were barely coping financially, and a further 5 per cent were finding things ‘difficult’.

Almost 17 million people have less than £100 in savings, while a 2017 CIPD report, Employee Financial Wellbeing, suggested that one in 10 of the workforce found it hard to concentrate in the office because of money worries, and 19 per cent said it had caused them to lose sleep.

“We’ve made it normal to have debt,” says Jo Thresher of financial education consultancy Better With Money. “Millennials in particular don’t realise it’s not healthy to run up debt. The cost of living has gone up – but the real problem is we’ve forgotten how to save and budget.”

Thresher talks of a moment of ‘debt discomfort’ when employees first realise they are overstretching themselves. Strugglers should be encouraged to see their credit score as a ‘Fitbit for money’ and try to improve it gradually, she says, while remaining aware that actively managing it will expose you to offers of further credit. Anyone whose debt is greater than their net income needs professional help, but persuading them to list their debts and prioritise them is often half the battle, she adds.

Prevention is better than cure, says Charles Cotton, CIPD performance and reward adviser, though financial education on its own is not enough: “You need a wellbeing strategy that looks at the issue from every angle – the benefits you offer, the organisational culture and whether people can speak up if they have a problem. It can be hard to get people to talk about debt because they can feel you’re going to judge them.”

Debt, says Cotton, isn’t a problem if people are managing it. But where employers can help is in raising financial literacy around interest rates, changes in personal circumstances and general resilience – helping people build up a financial buffer that will offer protection against potential shocks. And don’t assume, he adds, that people are financially savvy just because they are higher earners: senior employees can be particularly lax about their affairs simply because they lack the time to engage with the issue.

Domestic violence

“My manager told me off”

“I became withdrawn and I didn’t want to socialise with people my partner didn’t know,” says Steph*, an HR officer. “I was continually told I wasn’t allowed to go out, and I was accused of having affairs.” She is reliving the trauma of a violent and abusive relationship that lasted more than four years – during which time, work often exacerbated the detrimental effects on her mental wellbeing.

Two women are killed each week in England and Wales by current or former partners, according to Office for National Statistics figures, and just over 4 per cent of men have been victims of domestic abuse.

The workplace can bring much-needed safety for some victims, says Liz Ostrowski, head of service delivery at the Domestic Violence Intervention Project. “Workplaces can be calm environments compared with the anxieties experienced at home, and victims may choose to work longer hours or thrive at work,” she says.

But that wasn’t Steph’s experience. As her abuse – both physical and emotional – continued, she plucked up the courage to confide in her manager after being “told off” for not attending social functions. “I broke down in tears and explained I’d been physically attacked the previous weekend, but I received no support. She just brushed off what I’d told her and refocused on me not attending events,” she says.

“This made things worse as I had no escape – I was bullied at work and home. I left my job as I needed to have somewhere to work that was safe.” Eventually, she started a new role and, after developing a strong relationship with her HR director, she opened up about the abuse. “I felt I had someone who would listen,” she says. Steph was supported through the break-up with her abusive partner and was given time off when she needed it, as well as the opportunity to work flexibly.

Ostrowski says organisations need well-informed and clear policies on domestic violence to ensure everyone enduring an experience like Steph’s is listened to, and a formal process for recording and acting on their experiences. But equally, only a culture where people feel they are able to speak up about a subject that is often kept hidden will prevent others suffering in silence.

* Names have been changed

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