If you manage a team or lead a company, there will be many times when you’re faced with employees needing time off work due to difficult life events, such as ill-health, personal troubles, or a tragedy that has befallen them.
Today’s uncertain times have brought along with them a barrage of new stressors, such as safety concerns amid the pandemic, economic upheavals, and losing someone to Covid-19.
The pandemic has reshaped much of our thinking about the workplace - not only around how work gets done but also managers’ expectations of staff who are dealing with unforeseen scenarios they can’t control.
Managing staff going through a stressful life event is a challenge all bosses will face. It’s a fine line between being compassionate and supportive while staying professional and keeping the rest of the team focused on being productive. How you handle it is a test of your leadership.
Apart from being guided by company policies, here are a few concrete actions you can take to navigate the uncertainties currently unfolding in the workplace.
Being a supportive manager is one of the most valuable things you can do right now, especially if you consider the tremendous impact the pandemic has had on people’s mental wellbeing. A global study of employees found the mental health of almost 42% of respondents had declined since the outbreak began. Most employers have seen the short-term mental health impact the past year has had on staff, and longer-term effects, such as anxiety and depression are likely to be even more far-reaching.
With employees working remotely, it can be hard to spot the signs that someone is struggling or that their mental health is suffering. Check in with your team on a regular basis and communicate more than you think you need to. This was important before Covid-19 but has become more crucial than ever.
If someone tells you they’re battling to cope, take time to listen to how they’re doing and show compassion. Ask questions about what support they require and don’t assume you know what they need. Sometimes staff simply want a sounding board, or the chance to explain why a tough personal situation is sapping their strength.
Ask what you can do to help them be productive during this time, making sure you know what your company’s restrictions are around flexibility before committing to an arrangement. If your company has mental health resources available, encourage staff to use them. Remember to carry on checking in with them from time to time to see if further help is needed.
Your behaviour as a manager
As much as we all want things at work to just return to the way things were, they won’t. Trust that your staff are trying their hardest, and be flexible and generous in helping them thrive during these unprecedented times.
Build good relationships with team members, so that you know them well enough to recognise any warning signs that they’re struggling. Employees may feel embarrassed by personal issues, such as a sick relative or a troubled relationship, that are so overwhelming that their work performance is being affected.
Encourage them to talk to you. If you’re compassionate and available, people are more likely to flag personal problems with you. People need different things at different times, so expect that their needs will continue to change. You may not be able to anticipate how a difficult situation with a staff member will end, so keep an open mind and encourage ongoing dialogue - you can only help problem-solve issues if you know what’s going on.
When staff need time off
Helping someone who is struggling is one of the most crucial experiences in interacting with employees. People will always remember how you treated them and how you handled the moment.
If a staff member is booked off sick for more than a few days, arrange for someone to cover their work and redirect work emails and calls where possible, tailoring your support to meet their needs.
If an employee has lost a loved one, your support will be invaluable. Make contact with your bereaved employee as soon as possible, and offer your condolences. Listen, and expect sadness and tears. Be as flexible as you can in allowing them time and space to deal with their grief. Ask how they would like you to keep in touch and when the best time for you to contact them is. At all times be authentic. Your goal in reaching out is because you value them as a person – not that you’re concerned about what their absence will mean for the company. Grief is a complex emotion and everyone deals with it differently, so read up about grief’s various stages to understand how to show support and sensitivity when your employee returns to work.
Be patient and reasonable in your work expectations, and adjust their workload if needed. The grief will remain just below the surface for many months, but be on the lookout for warning signs of prolonged grief, such as complete withdrawal, substance abuse and poor grooming.
Ways to show support
Sending flowers is the traditional way of showing people that we care but there are other, more practical ways to show support. Making dinner or tidying the house may seem exhausting to your employee at this tricky time, so order pre-made meals online that can be frozen and heated for dinner at a later stage, and have them delivered to your employee’s home.
You could also book a grocery delivery with an online retailer like Carrefour or Zucchini who will deliver groceries to all areas of the city. Food essentials that can be frozen, such as milk, bread and soup, will be thoughtful, as will snacks or treats they can have on hand for when people come by to show their condolences.
If the employee is a single parent without much support, chat to colleagues to see if anyone can help with school drop-offs during this time. You could also book a SweepSouth home servicer to help around the house for a few hours or the day, or one of their trusted child caregivers to look after children for a few hours. One of the positives of the pandemic is how much more empathy human beings are showing each other. We’ve all been through life-changing events in the past year, and for many people struggling through illness, depression or grieving a loss, the way their boss and colleagues reacted towards them as they tried to transition through the challenge is what they will remember most.