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Care for your people: When life stressors and work collide


Whether it’s a busy season or an unexpected event, life can be busy and stressful. It’s easy to say leave your problems at the door, but sometimes common life stressors can affect employees’ personal lives so much that it creeps into their professional life. This is especially true in a post-pandemic landscape where there’s even more of a grey area between the separation of life and work.

Increased levels of psychological or physical stress can have serious implications on employee performance and that of their teams.

While you, as a business leader, can’t prevent the hardships of life, you can put programs and policies in place to help employees in their time of need.

What is a life stressor?

While balancing work and personal lives can create tension for employees, life stressors that can impact performance go beyond typical day-to-day life issues.

Make no mistake, balancing everyday issues like competing family schedules, managing commutes or juggling child care can be challenging. For the sake of this conversation, life stressors are larger, often more traumatic life events, or major life changes.

Common life situations that may impact employee performance include:

  • Changes in marital status
  • Changes in child custody arrangements
  • Loss of a family member
  • Illness (either for the employee or a family member)
  • Mental health problems
  • Buying or selling a home
  • Financial challenges, including bankruptcy
  • Accidents or disasters

Another increasingly common life stressor today is elder care, when an adult child becomes responsible for elderly family members.

Life stressors can cause physical, emotional and behavioral problems, potentially pulling an employee’s focus away from work. The stress can impact their wellbeing and mental alertness, making it hard for them to be present and productive. It can also create a lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating.

While these situations are personal in nature, they can easily impact an employee’s work life – and their team or employer.

How can your business help employees manage life stressors to avoid negative impacts for both the employee and the business?

What are the signs your employee is struggling?

If an employee is having trouble managing a personal life stressor, their demeanor or performance may change.

Previously stellar employees may:

  • Become problematic
  • Be distracted or unfocused
  • Make mistakes
  • Miss deadlines
  • Be away from the workplace more than usual
  • Exhibit anger, or have a shorter fuse, lashing out at fellow employees or customers

While it’s easy to dismiss a bad day, when employees are dealing with continued stressors, their bad days can add up to bad weeks, or even months. The situation can hurt team morale or customer relationships, causing a loss of trust and confidence.

One employee’s stress can disrupt the workplace and create ripple effects that impact business.

While no one anticipates life stressors, they naturally happen. How the employee and the employer handles these situations can have lasting impacts on the employee in their time of need and on the business.

How can you talk to the employee about their life stressors?

Everyone handles stress differently, and depending on your relationship with the employee, they may or may not feel comfortable sharing details of their situation with you.

1. Work to create a positive environment of trust and mutual respect that allows employees to discuss their challenges with you openly. This means making yourself or the employee’s direct manager accessible and interested in their well-being.

2. If an employee does not openly share their situation, but their performance is suffering, their manager should address the issue with the employee.

3. Talk with them one-on-one, and share that you’ve noticed a problem. Ask if there is anything that’s led to this dip in performance. This offers them the chance to open up about their situation.

While there are life stressors and situations that require employees to divulge some information – say if an employee needs to request extended leave or medical accommodations – there are no laws that require an employee to share anything about their personal lives.

4. Let the employee know that you (and your leadership team) care and would like to work together to address their performance. Show them that you are there to support them. Let them know they’re a valued member of the team, and ask what you can do to help.

While employees do not have to share their personal news with you or their supervisor, if they aren’t meeting their job requirements, the life stressor has become a performance issue. It’s important that all employees be held accountable for their job performance.

How can your business provide assistance during life stressors?

If the employee isn’t able to focus or positively contribute due to the life stressor, the situation needs to be addressed in a proactive manner, respecting both the employee’s needs and that of the business.

Depending on the life stressor, an employee may need to prioritize their personal life versus their work commitments.

Thinking ahead and establishing policies and procedures that address potential situations can help avoid problems.

Each life stressor may require different solution:

  • To help an employee better manage their personal situation, an employer can offer an employee assistance program that provides confidential support, resources and referrals. 
  • If part of the challenge is meeting regular office hours, it might mean offering a flexible work schedule.
  • If the life stressor is the loss of a family member, offering condolences and support may include bereavement leave.
  • If an accident or natural disaster is involved, it may mean helping connect the employee to available government assistance.

If a change in the employee’s health has caused the issue, an employee may ask an employer to grant them a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Or if an employee needs to take leave due to a medical condition, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may apply. Other solutions could include a leave of absence or allowing an employee to work from home when possible.

No matter what the solution, the common denominator is consistency: each employee must be treated the same.

One employee can’t be offered accommodations or solutions that are not offered to others. To maintain that balance, think ahead and prepare for a scenario. Create policies and procedures to fairly address the situation no matter what employee is involved.

Also keep in mind privacy. Whatever the employee shares with you should be kept private and only shared with those who may need to know, such as human resources or the employee’s direct supervisor. Respecting the employee’s privacy and encouraging others to do the same helps contribute to a positive, trusting work environment.

Summing it up

Finally, maintaining open communication, proactively addressing problems and highlighting resources that are available can help protect both employees and businesses from added stress when life stressors interrupt the workplace.

To learn more about how to support your workforce with issues like life stressors, download our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.