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How to Recognize and Help Employee Struggles

By Roni Davis

May 29 2022 - Perhaps you’ve noticed that the work of one of your employees hasn’t been up to their usual standard, or you've seen their behavior at the office change. As their employer, you must address employee struggles both for the sake of your employee and the health of your business,

Law firm owner and divorce mediation lawyer Lee Schwartz, Esq. imparts some advice for business owners and managers on how to recognize employee struggles and help them (and their business) through them. Use these four simple steps to deal with employee struggles.

First, Be Observant

If you are tasked with monitoring employee output or efficiency, you must be observant. Getting to know your employees helps you recognize when they are not their usual selves, besides a change in the quality or quantity of their work. Being observant gives you two opportunities to address an employee’s struggles early, noticing either a change in behavior or a change in their performance.

There may be obvious signs an employee is struggling, besides their work suffering:

  • Showing up late or leaving early
  • Taking more sick or personal days than usual
  • Coming to work disheveled, without having observed usual grooming habits
  • Complaining to their colleagues
  • Shutting themselves off from their colleagues
  • Not engaging in office banter, when that had previously been usual
  • Demonstrating impatience or having a shorter fuse than usual

Another employee may or may not come forward having noticed a colleague struggling - you cannot rely on peer reporting in this instance. Whether you notice a decline in work productivity or an attitude shift first, address it with your employee as soon as you can.

Second, Address the Problem and Listen

Invite your employee to a meeting, and also invite their manager/supervisor, their union representative, and someone from your Human Resources department, as appropriate.

Do not be confrontational. Consider opening the dialog with something along the lines of, "You are a valuable member of our team, and I want you to know we are committed to helping you with whatever you are struggling with. We’ve noticed a decline in your work - is there something you need to get back on track?"

Note that your employee will respond in one of three ways - deny that there is a problem, accept what you’ve said and tell you it is a problem outside of work that you are working on, or accept what you’ve said and be open to discussing solutions.

Denying the Problem

All you can do is accept what your employee says if they report that there is no problem. State that their work has not satisfied expectations and is not up to their usual standard, and ask if there is anything you can do to help them. If they say no, accept it but voice the expectation that their work must improve.

Make sure your HR rep and union rep take note of this discussion. If the employee’s work does not improve, another meeting will be necessary, during which you must devise a path of either remediation or separation, according to your labor contract.

Stating that the Problem is Personal

If your employee admits something is going on that is affecting the quality of their work but insists it is personal and they are taking care of it, respect that but ask their union rep or Human Resources to follow up with them in a private, confidential meeting where the employee can be referred to therapeutic counseling or substance abuse intervention or whatever other service they need.

Again, your employee’s performance may or may not improve after this discussion. If the employee’s work does not improve, another meeting will be necessary, during which you must devise a path of either remediation or separation, according to your labor contract.

Stating a Work-Related Problem

If the employee says that there is a work-related problem affecting their performance, encourage them to disclose it and remain open to hearing what they have to say. Do not get defensive no matter what they say because any work condition that negatively affects the performance of one employee may be affecting others who are merely dealing with it better.

A good employer or manager/supervisor wants to create and maintain a work environment that is optimal for employees’ comfort and productivity. Problems in the workplace can be minor, such as keeping the office or factory heat setting too hot, or large, such as sexual harassment or gender or age discrimination. In other words, your employee may be suffering from something easily remedied, or something systemic that requires investigation.

A third option is that the employee feels overwhelmed with the amount or complexity of the work assigned. In this case, you can reduce the workload or provide additional training to help the employee perform better.

Third, Provide Appropriate Assistance

Address minor problems promptly, such as turning down the heat or reassigning the employee to a more comfortable area. Address big problems such as perceived harassment or discrimination immediately, and in the meantime, reassign the employee to be managed by someone other than the putative malfeasor.

Last, Follow Up

Whatever actions you take to remediate the issue your employee has that is affecting their performance on the job, be sure to document it thoroughly. While the steps you take may solve the problem, you must consider what is necessary if they do not. While an improvement in performance may result from your actions, accept that it may not and prepare for that contingency.

If a member of your team is very valuable, you may be able to justify spending the time and effort to hold multiple meetings and expend different forms of remediation in your attempt to help them get back on track. However, know and accept that even the most valued employee may be struggling in a way you cannot help. In that case, your documentation will help you separate that employee according to your labor contract.

About the author

Roni Davis

Roni Davis is a writer, blogger, and legal assistant operating out of the greater Philadelphia area. She frequently works with various legal clients, including Schwartz, Fox and Saltzman LLC, a group of divorce mediation lawyers based in Philadelphia.

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