KEEP IT PROFESSIONAL? NOT POSSIBLE.

by Matt Thomas

A few months ago I met with one of our long-time clients. He’s had our company on retainer for nearly two years now. Needless to say, we’ve spent a fair amount of time “in his kitchen.” We’ve helped him secure talent, assessed his culture (twice), built out mentoring and training programs, and helped with strategic planning initiatives. Our meeting didn’t have any pressing items on the agenda, just a check-in to gauge progress and hear how things are going. I asked him, “so, how’s it going?” His response? “Pretty rough right now. We’ve got all these things in place to help strengthen our culture. We know where we want to go and have a clear vision for getting there. I love our people and I like most of our clients, but productivity has fallen off a cliff and I can’t figure out why.”

Over the years we have placed nearly half of his workforce, so I went one by one through each person, asking how they were doing. As he updated me on his employees I could see the light turning on. One was going through a nasty divorce. Another had a teenager with a drug problem. Another had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. On and on he went. Key employees’ personal lives were a train wreck and it was impacting the entire company.

We’ve all been there. Coming into the office after another sleepless night, doing our best to leave our anxiety in the parking lot. Then we bump into the annoyingly chipper intern who greets with us with an obnoxiously enthusiastic, “Hey! How are you this fine morning?” “Great! Just great,” we lie through gritted teeth. We head for the bathroom, splash water on our face, and start counting the minutes till our lunch break.

No one is immune to suffering. It is an equal opportunity life experience. Some of us are better at compartmentalizing than others, but everyone is impacted and shaped by the environments and circumstances we wade back into when we clock out. It’s as true for leaders as it is for our people. For years, the primary mantra for navigating serious personal issues in the workplace was to “keep it professional.” Life is tough, just deal with it and make sure to leave that junk at home.

No one is immune to suffering. It is an equal opportunity life experience.

Millennials have since upended this modus operandi with a general inability to set or respect personal boundaries. Like all pendulum swings, things have shifted too far, but there have been some positive outcomes. EAP programs are on the rise with access to therapy, treatment, financial assistance and other resources readily available to those in need. PTO is encouraged and increasing year after year as employers are beginning to understand the importance of taking an actual extended break from work. HR managers are morphing from paper-pushers to robust on-boarding, training, and professional support gurus. These are all signs of progress.

For most small businesses EAP programs and HR departments are a long way down the road. So what can we do when our people’s lives are falling apart?

Give your people time to deal with the situation head-on.

Asking a team member to suck it up and pretend like everything is fine isn’t just unkind, it’s unwise. If one of your people is dealing with a personal crisis (divorce, disease, death, addiction, etc.) it is better to send them home for a clearly defined period of time so that they can focus on righting the ship. Otherwise, your risk exposure is going way up and productivity is going to plummet, no matter the industry. The exception here is when your employee sees work as a welcome distraction.

Asking a team member to suck it up and pretend like everything is fine isn’t just unkind, it’s unwise.

Remove the stigma around personal suffering.

The disorientation a person feels when everything around them is breaking is amplified by the shame and fear they experience wondering if their co-workers can tell things aren’t okay. Assure your people that you understand things happen, that you’ve been there too, and that you have their back if they need anything.

Engage in regular non-work related conversations.

Good leaders do this naturally. They take the time to learn and remember their employees’ kids’ names. They have met their spouses and can put a face with a name. They know what their employee likes to do outside of work. Engaging in regular non-work related conversations allows us to better intuit when one of our people is at the front end of a rough patch.

Engaging in regular non-work related conversations allows us to better intuit when one of our people is at the front end of a rough patch.

What about you? How does a leader engage at work when things are hitting the fan at home? Pretending that either A. you don’t have any real challenges or that B. they don’t really affect you at work are not viable options. But neither is letting your people in on every up and down in your personal life. They will rightly begin to lose confidence in you. So what can you do?

The first and most important step any leader can take is to make sure that someone in their life is up to speed on how things are going and how serious the toll is–a best friend, a mentor/coach, a therapist, etc. Someone outside of the home and outside of work. Bottled up pain is coming out one way or another, it’s best to be proactive. (FWIW, I have not met a single healthy leader who doesn’t regularly engage in therapy.) How about around your people?

Bottled up pain is coming out one way or another, it’s best to be proactive.

It is okay to be human. If things aren’t going great you don’t have to pretend they are. You can even let some of your key people in, the ones you trust unequivocally to steward your vulnerability with grace. There is a pretty big gap between letting your leadership team know that you’re in a rough patch on the home front and crying on the floor in your office listening to sappy 80’s power ballads. Oversharing is a primary marker of immaturity, but I’ll say it again, it is okay to be human. Suffering, just like the good times, will pass. Hang in there.