Human Suffering is Everywhere-Including at Work. So is Empathy and Caring.


There is a strong trend toward embracing a human workplace, where we treat employees as complex and full people, not just cogs in a machine whose productivity should be consumed as part of a ceaseless march to profitability, or to hit targets and goals. But we all know there is more to the story than that.

Real people go through having children, breakups of relationships, including divorce, health challenges and caring for sick family members. We all meet these challenges head-on, and appreciate our employer’s support as we do that. Meeting our employees where they are in the give and take of life can create lasting relationships and a sense of well-being at work that contributes to productivity, retention and success in the long term.

Here are some examples of what managers can do to meet the complex and holistic needs of their employees, without losing focus on work:

·       If things aren’t going well with a work project, ask what you can do to help. Is it additional training and resources, flexibility in a deadline, or additional support?

·       Don’t ignore it when your team member is clearly struggling. It’s up to your employee to decide how much detail about the situation to reveal, but it’s not helpful to pretend nothing is happening.

·       Isolation during times of stress can lead to more serious problems. Refer your people to the Employee Assistance Plan, or EAP. My favorite lead-in to that conversation is to relate a story about how I or another leader accessed the services in the past and how it helped, sharing that “It’s there to support all of us in times like this.

·       Sometimes it’s not possible to alter a deadline, and there are serious business consequences of failure. In these cases, involve your employee in the decision-making process. For instance: “The critical nature of this project makes this a hard deadline. If we fail, we could lose the account, and our team will be held accountable for that, so I want to make sure we either set you up for success or hand off to another team member if that would be more helpful. What do you think we should do?”  Unilaterally taking away projects, or making assumptions about what your employee can successfully handle, can make things worse. Instead, be clear about what's expected and how you can help. 

·       If your employee discloses that the problem is medical in nature, (remember that depression and anxiety are medical problems that can arise from difficult life circumstances and transitions), be ready with resources like Short Term Disability benefits and FMLA leave as options. Reach out to your HR team for assistance and make sure your team has the opportunity to privately talk with them about what’s needed. Never ask questions about your employee’s medical status, but if he/she voluntarily discloses that, don’t share that information with others aside from HR.

·       Above all, don’t leave your struggling employee out there alone, to stand or fall. Be frank about what’s required for work performance, and let your employee know what supportive resources are available.  

While it’s true that some employees will tend to have ongoing problems, for a variety of individual reasons, the strategy of addressing work performance, support needs and benefits available as a holistic plan will move your employees toward better outcomes and help them feel supported and valued at work. If, ultimately, your employee is unable to perform the job, he/she will nevertheless have been treated fairly, valued as a team member, and given every opportunity to succeed. Managing with a human touch takes vulnerability, commitment and confidence, and not only produces better results, but also is a more rewarding experience for the leader.  

Photo by MilitaryHealth on / CC BY

Kelly Marinelli