Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Coping

Personal Problems at Work

"Just check your personal problems at the door."

A lofty ideal. But is it possible?

Unfortunately, people bring THEMSELVES to work...and that includes their thoughts, their worries, their struggles. Yes, as professionals, we do our best not to let our personal struggles bleed over into our work. But often it does.

How Do Personal Problems Impact the Work Environment?

Personal problems take their toll on concentration, productivity, meeting deadlines, memory, creativity, teamwork, and customer service. Many join the rolls of the "presenteeism" problem...the loss in productivity that occurs when workers are present in body on the job, but they are not performing at their best. The individual experiencing the personal struggle is not the only one who feels the impact. There can be a ripple through the team, causing an unfair burden on others, diminished morale, and distraction.

This disruption is because of the emotional roller coaster people experience when going through major life changes, especially when they didn't choose the change or when the change involves an ongoing adversarial process. People ride the emotions of shock, denial, disbelief, anger, bitterness, guilt, anxiety, panic, depression, grief, and hopefully, acceptance, rebuilding, and growth.

So, despite the unrealistic ideal of leaving other life problems at the workplace door, it just doesn't happen that way. People bring their lives inside them. Perfectly normal, stable people can perform erratically and act pretty crazy during a difficult personal crisis. What they think about, what they feel impacts how they work.

However, the good news is that managers and team members have here a unique opportunity to build productivity, morale, and the bottom line.

What Are Some of the Things Managers and Team Members Can Do to Help?

Understand that when employees are embroiled in emotional life experiences, they need both emotional support and practical help. Without perceived emotional support, they will decide the organization doesn't care, and loyalty wanes. Without practical help, they'll be trying to find solutions on work time, talking to colleagues, and missing work.

Here are some DO'S and DON'T'S that will enable managers to help an employee regain focus and productivity as soon as possible during and after personal crisis.


  1. Strike a balance between empathy and the bottom line, between concern and compassion and the expectations and requirements of the job.
  2. Talk about the problem when it impacts job performance. Actively listen to what the person wants to tell you and express genuine compassion. Then discuss how the emotions and time requirements of the process may affect the person's job responsibilities.
  3. Talk about any temporary adjustments that may be required. Discuss how these may affect the team and how that will be handled with other team members.
  4. Ask what the person needs from you during this time. (Some prefer total privacy; others are hurt if you don't ask often about how they are doing.)
  5. Show the employee that you care about him/her as a person. This will help them maintain a high commitment to performance, despite their difficulties. They also remember your concern, and this builds loyalty to you and to the company.
  6. Encourage the person to use the Employee Assistance Program, if your company has one available. Emphasize the confidentiality of the program. Let him or her know that you are not suggesting this because you think he/she is "crazy."
  7. Normalize the emotional roller coaster, educating the employee about the range of emotions that normal people in crisis experience. Also, assure them that the emotional chaos is temporary.
  8. Provide practical support, e.g., referral to qualified psychological, financial, or legal professionals.
  9. Become knowledgeable about community resources and share those options with the person in crisis.
  10. Provide educational materials such as pamphlets and books with the team member.
  11. Allow time flexibility so that the person can attend to medical, legal, and counseling appointments.
  12. Encourage the person to connect with support sources like relative, friends, support groups, and religious organizations.


  1. Try to become "therapist," especially if you are the person's manager, nor fall into the trap of giving advice and hearing all the details on a daily basis.
  2. Join the person in running down the alleged culprits in the crisis.
  3. Give the person high-risk, highly emotional, or high-profile tasks when he or she is in personal crisis.
  4. Make major work changes until the person has made progress in recovering. Too many changes at once can become overwhelming. Instead, keep the person's job tasks as familiar and routine as possible.
  5. Tell the person, "I know how you feel," even if you've been through a similar situation. People internally respond defensively to this well-intentioned statement: "No one could possibly know how I feel." (And they'd be right.)
  6. Ignore the children. Instead, educate the employee about typical ways children react. Remind the person about the availability of EAP or other counseling services for the entire family.
  7. Expect the employee to bounce back immediately. Healing takes time.
  8. Fail to maintain a reasonable standard of performance. Show some flexibility, but be a consistent and compassionate coach who is a resource to help the person maintain good performance.

In short...reach out, be a friend, offer support.

Who knows, it might be your turn next!

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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