The Human Touch — When Is It Especially Important?

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Dan Jolivet
Photo of two people having a conversation

Steve was clearly having difficulties. A manager at a professional firm, he was coming in late to work and repeatedly calling in sick at the last minute. Lisa, his supervisor, noticed that he seemed tired and distracted, and he’d put on weight. Although Steve’s work performance was fine, she’d heard complaints from his team that he was often irritated and had snapped at one employee over a minor issue. They were concerned, stressed and feeling on edge.1

At a one-on-one meeting, Lisa raised these issues with Steve. “I’ve noticed you’ve had some attendance issues recently, and your team has shared with me that you’ve seemed irritated with people,” she said.

What else should Lisa say to help Steve? Read on to hear the rest of the story.

Worries at Work

With the abundance of management advice that comes our way, it’s easy to lose sight of the human side of managing people. We’re all people, however, and people bring their baggage to work with them — as much as they might try to leave their medical conditions, personal problems and financial worries at home.

Studies show there’s no shortage of issues for American workers to worry about:

  • Almost 60 percent of Americans live with at least one chronic medical condition. An estimated 30 million live with five or more.2
  • Almost a quarter of Americans experience symptoms of a diagnosable mental health or substance use condition.3
  • More than 20 percent of Americans are unable to pay all their monthly bills. About 40 percent would be unable to afford an unexpected expense of $400.4

So how can you help an employee who might be experiencing a behavioral health problem?

1. Identify the Problem

In her meeting with Steve, Lisa brought up work-related issues and observations. Then she gave him time to respond and explain. This conversation helped her to identify the problem and offer solutions.

4 Steps

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Ask the right question
  3. Listen with empathy
  4. Connect to resources

Steve responded to Lisa’s question by saying he had a lot on his mind. He was having odd neurological symptoms and had recently experienced seizures. His doctor had ordered tests and consultations with specialists. Steve didn’t want to share information with his co-workers before he had a diagnosis.

This news was in addition to other issues he’d already told Lisa about. These included other medical conditions, his recent divorce and his elderly father’s challenges with Alzheimer’s disease.

2. Ask the Right Question

During her meeting with Steve, Lisa identified concerns about his performance, then asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Her question is a good example of relating to an employee on a human level.

To be effective, ask the question with empathy and concern. Find a variation of the question that feels right to you, such as “What do you need to get things back on track?” or “What would help you address these issues?” You have to truly want to know what might help the other person improve performance. And you must take the time to listen patiently — set aside all distractions and be fully present.

Avoid asking direct questions about the employee’s medical history, diagnosis or treatment. Stick to general questions that express your support.

Lisa thanked Steve for sharing his information and said she was there to support him.

3. Listen With Empathy

If an employee is struggling with a behavioral health condition — such as depression, anxiety or alcoholism — react in a calm manner. Avoid responding in a way that might trigger shame, embarrassment or distress.

Be aware of the myths and irrational beliefs around the condition, and remind yourself that they are just that: myths and irrational beliefs. Don’t minimize the situation with comments like, “You’re probably just feeling a little stressed” or “You don’t seem depressed to me.” But don’t catastrophize about it either by automatically saying something like, “You should check into a hospital to get the help you need.”

Even if the situation is urgent, such as when an employee talks about suicide, remain calm and supportive. Contact a human resources representative or other resource if you need assistance.

Be yourself, be authentic and express your concern, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re the supervisor in the relationship. Avoid letting your personal concern cloud your professional relationship.

4. Connect to Resources

People who are experiencing behavioral health issues may not be aware of resources that are available to them. Remind employees that health advocacy or navigation services can help them find new providers or specialists. A company-sponsored employee assistance program can link them to counselors, financial guidance, and child care or elder care experts.

Lisa reviewed Steve’s PTO status and mentioned that he may be eligible for short term disability leave. She reminded him about the availability of the company’s EAP and health navigation services, and also said he could contact the human resources department if he had questions about his rights under FMLA and ADA. Finally, she encouraged him to ask for help and reiterated that she was there to support him through this difficult time.

Steve thanked her for her concern. They agreed to check in a week later.

Keep in Touch

Make a point to follow up on your conversation and keep checking in until the employee feels better.

Lisa continued to meet weekly with Steve. He shared his progress with medical tests and appointments. Although she continued to offer help, he maintained that he was doing reasonably well and wanted to keep working. “Right now, work is where I feel the least stressed,” he joked.

After about two months — a few weeks after Steve’s medical diagnosis — Lisa met him as he was coming into the office. He was smiling and looked healthier than he had in months. “You look like you’re feeling better,” she said. “I am,” he responded. “I feel like I’ve turned the corner and things are getting back on track.”

In her next meetings with his team, the feedback was positive. He was back to his old self, his team members were feeling supported, and the team was back to meeting their goals without feeling stressed out.