5 things to consider when something bad happens to your employee’s loved ones
There has been a stream of bad news stories recently involving sudden death and adultery among celebrities. While we might be interested in such stories, they don’t really affect us, since they concern strangers. But, we are likely to be badly shaken if such things were to happen in the lives of friends and relatives
Such unforeseeable events can happen to anyone. How should you react if such a thing were to happen to one of your employees? Here are five things you should bear in mind in such a situation.
People who seem fine are actually at risk
First, you should not take statements such as “I’m fine” at face value. Nor should you be fooled by someone appearing more cheerful than usual, very talkative or throwing themselves into their work. There is a danger in reassuring yourself that your troubled employee appears in better spirits than you thought they would – it is highly likely that this signals reaction formation, a type of defence mechanism.
A defence mechanism is an unconscious behaviour that protects us when we have suffered a profound shock, and it is proof that we have suffered something that is too disturbing for us to assimilate. Many of us have probably had the experience of laughing out of discomfort when giving a presentation in front of a large audience – this is reaction formation. The afflicted person claiming to be fine is unaware that they are putting on a brave face, with the danger that they will suddenly crumble later. We need to be prepared to offer constant support until they really are back to normal.
Second, is another defence mechanism – rationalisation. Putting a positive spin on a negative event (a bit like writing something untoward off as “sour grapes”) is another sign that the hurt we have suffered is too great to bear. In the case, for example, of a colleague who doesn’t seem sad after a divorce, but talks in terms of how much more free time he or she now has, or how the marriage was never good, remind yourself that this might be rationalisation, and, if possible, give them the opportunity to admit their true feelings by taking them out for a drink, or something.
The third defence mechanism you need to be aware of is isolation. The media reported after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that many children carried on as normal, without shedding a tear. Burying your pain deep in your heart and coping with trouble without any fuss is another sign of profound shock.
Serious people who don’t like to admit defeat are more prone to using defence mechanisms, so please be very aware of this possibility if you have employees like this.
Don't offer advice yet
Fourth, is something to be aware of when approached by a troubled colleague. You might be tempted to give advice to your employee who tells you they have suffered some major life incident. But I would really like to warn you against this, for the following three reasons.
One, it is often the case that nothing you can say will be helpful. Two, even in a case where you can say something of use, it’s quite likely that they are not in a fit state of mind to take it in. Giving advice to someone in such a state is like pouring water into a glass that is already full – there’s simply no room for it to go in. And three, you might be held responsible if the course of action you advise doesn’t go well. A junior who takes your advice but doesn’t feel any better as a result could hold you responsible and consequently direct their hurt at you in the form of anger.
Rather than proffering advice, you would do better simply to listen to your colleague spill their troubles. Please save your words of wisdom until your colleague has finished emptying their heart and actually asked for it.
Compassionate leave can make things worse
Fifth, we often grant compassionate leave to junior colleagues who have suffered a sudden, profound shock. Their performance is likely to suffer if they are preoccupied by what has happened to them even while they are at work, and the incident is likely to impact on those working around them. This might make a short period of leave seem like the best thing for everyone. But in reality it could push your colleague over the edge.
People tend to dwell on their troubles when they are alone. When we are faced with troubles that seem to have no answer and no way out, we can easily become pessimistic and feel very alone. We are often distracted from our worries when we are at work, so make sure your junior has a family to support them or is not the type to get lonely before granting leave.
You also need to take care when you do not grant compassionate leave. People are more likely to feel hopeless at night than during the day, often falling into a downward spiral when negative thoughts prevent them sleeping properly. As well as lightening their workload, please remember to take them out for evening entertainment after work and watch out for any deterioration in their physical condition.
There is no failsafe golden rule for dealing with profoundly troubled colleagues. This makes it vital that you judge your employee's situation with the above five points in mind, and work closely with the person him or herself in deciding how best to respond.
If they can swallow their pain with your support, they may be able to carry on working as effectively as before. You should pay close attention to the signals they give off, and keep an eye on how they are doing for quite a while.