How Can We Support Employees Going through Difficult Times?
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Losing something dear to us, something we are attached to and in which we have invested time, energy and emotion is a blow to our confidence, emotional balance and peace of mind.
Certainly, throughout our careers, we have been put in the position of having to return to ”normality” after a loss, separation or death and many of us are going through such a moment right now.
Dressing up and going to the office as if it were any other day is a daunting thing to do after the shock of a loss. And not just for you, but for those around you too: colleagues, superiors and co-workers.
At an organisational level, we are more or less prepared for such delicate moments. We know so little about what to say and how to go about helping a colleague going through a rough time that, instead of showing our support, we rather choose to avoid such topics.
You may feel that the organisation and those around you are moving on while your life is forever changed.
Depending on the organisational culture, the return to the office and the transition to a new chapter may or may not be a smooth process. Since vulnerability is not generally perceived as a strength in the workplace, we find ourselves having to play the role until it becomes overwhelming.
Many of us are still at the stage where we refuse to acknowledge that life will never be the same. We have lost a lifestyle, the freedoms we used to have, financial stability, a job, relationships or even our health. These are all intangible losses that affect us and add to the emotional baggage we already have, especially if we overlook them.
The impact is reflected in our level of concentration and ability to adapt to the new. It comes with moments when we feel overwhelmed, anxious or irritable. It brings headaches, insomnia, lack of focus and it affects us and those close to us. Last but not least, its consequences are felt in our work too.
Therefore, loss comes with a number of hidden costs, both for us and for the organisation we work for.
One of these costs is the phenomenon called presenteeism, i.e. when employees come to work and are not fully engaged or perform less well due to health problems.
The downside is that whether we know how to cope with loss or not, our career requires us to be present, productive, to meet deadlines and to continue to deliver.
On the plus side, work can be therapeutic. When you use your talents and put passion into what you do while spending time in a place where you are greeted with support and empathy, work becomes the place where you can find new purpose in life and this allows you to redefine yourself both personally and professionally.
How can we support employees at such times?
Firstly, by having organisational policies that define the rights, responsibilities and benefits that an employee in a difficult situation has access to.
But keep in mind that it is not enough to have policies. You also need an organisational culture based on empathy and support. If the focus is on work, results and performance and less on relationships, trust and communication, the organisation is unlikely to be effective in managing the challenges brought about by loss.
Secondly, given that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, flexibility becomes a basic requirement at such a time. Everyone feels differently: some need work, others need days off. Some get their energy from socialising and taking part in events, others need peace and quiet and lots of space for themselves.
Thirdly, it is important to be able to provide a safe, non-judgmental space where rumours, comments and speculation about a colleague’s situation are either absent or addressed immediately. Nothing can be more unpleasant when you’re going through a difficult time than hearing that you’re the topic of discussion over coffee.
Fourth, we need realistic expectations. If we want things to be the way they used to be, we’ve set ourselves the wrong goals. Recovery is a non-linear messy process that does not have a deadline. It is a rollercoaster of emotions with good days and bad days and what the person ultimately needs is patience and gentleness.
Last but not least, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the impact of loss is not a one-way street: that is, it is not only our personal life that influences our professional life, but vice versa.
Sometimes we have to return home after shattering news, chapter closures or defeats in the office.
We’d like to keep the two lives separate, and to some extent we do, but when their impact is very great, it affects all aspects of our lives.
Now, when the space at home overlaps with the space at the office, separating the two ”lives” becomes a huge challenge for most of us. So how ready and willing are we to find new solutions?