What's love got to do with it?
How relationships outside work affect performance inside work
Picture this: the employee you’ve been circling for updates all week finally shows up to the team call; puffy eyed, dishevelled, and appearing preoccupied. When asked for updates, they talk about tasks that are still work in progress, ask for yet another extension or worse, have nothing to say. As a manager, you can chalk this up to Monday blues or sickness for a week, maybe two. But, it doesn’t take long to get irritated when absences become a blocker for everybody else. What do you do now?
Many managers assume the simplest path is to get rid of the problem altogether, but hiring and training someone new is a long process. The alternative? Approach your employees with compassion; ask them what’s wrong.
Know the impact
With 39 and 42% of all employees working in a remote or hybrid setting respectively, lines between life and work are truly blurred.¹ It’s not surprising that personal crises like breakups, loss, separation, and divorce creep into the professional lives of employees more frequently.
The emotional and physical pain that comes with a breakup can have a profound impact on workplace performance, and result in huge losses for businesses. 42% of high earners in the UK alone say problems in their personal relationships resulted in declining performance.² This figure is similar to that of mental health and its link to weak performance, an issue that costs UK employers £45 billion a year.³
You’d think an outrageously expensive problem like employee heartbreak would be a focal point for manager efforts. It isn’t. 62% of managers are usually unaware their teammates are facing problems at home. Those who do know offer minimal to no support, with time off being the only solution they can offer.
The value of connection
Rethinking compassion for the workplace in an increasingly isolated time is a revolutionary step. Any business that wants to remain sustainable must acclimatise to a changing world’s changing needs. Time off (often with no pay) is a temporary solution for those going through a personal crisis. The employee will show up to work after their time off, but there is value in knowing they can lean on the people around them to become their best self again. This relieves the stress that comes from simultaneously balancing a task list, uncomfortable emotions and low motivation. Help employees feel they are allowed to pace themselves and gifted the space to get back on their feet.
A famous Gallup study of 27 million employees revealed that employees who give a 5 (on a 5-point scale) to the statements, “I feel I can talk with my manager about non-work related issues” and “I feel I can approach my manager with any type of question” are more engaged than those who gave the same statements a 4. This is good news, but the proportion of people who gave a score of 5 is disappointingly low: 27% and 37% respectively.⁴ Something’s got to give.
Walking a tightrope
While it is necessary to give employees more flexibility and exchange words of comfort, there is a fine line between extending sympathy and being taken for granted. Unfortunately, there is no time limit for grief, so eyeballing when to push and when to slow down is in your hands. Linda Hill, author of Being the Boss suggests dealing with an employee who is undergoing personal stress is the ultimate test of effective leadership. Managers should acknowledge these personal issues with empathy yet maintain a sense of professionalism.⁵
Where to begin
1. Gauge temperament
Employees spend a third of their life at work; a whopping 90,000 hours of work over a lifetime.⁶ All that time is spent physically or virtually surrounded by work colleagues in meetings and working sessions. As a manager, it would be a worthwhile investment to make these hours more meaningful and less routine, especially for those who go home and face worse problems. The first step is to observe the person that needs help: are they unusually quiet, agitated, or angry? Through observation, it becomes easier to gauge their triggers and the best time to approach them.
2. Establish meaningful connection
After gauging their temperament, set aside time to address the issue at hand. As humans, we often know when we aren’t ‘showing up’, and expecting a layoff would be the standard reaction. Take this opportunity to make the employee feel unthreatened and supported. Ask relevant questions like:
- Would you like to talk about what’s going on? It can stay between us.
- How are you feeling?
- Is there anything I can do to make this time easier for you?
It’s equally important to see how busy they are and work around their schedule. This helps minimise the stress of completing pending tasks and juggling an emotionally taxing meeting.
3. Check in regularly
It’s not enough to ask questions for a week and stop at the first sight of a smile. You have to be prepared for emotions that wax and wane, and consistently be a safe person to speak to. Managers can demonstrate their consistency by scheduling short and regular 1-to-1s, limiting distractions like phone notifications, and being as present as possible when listening. In the physical office, this can mean a coffee break where it’s just the two of you; in WFH, this can mean staring at the camera and not yourself, limiting background noise, and repeating what they say so they know you are listening.
Get a headstart
Being a game changer is daunting, but rewarding. Gauging, acknowledging and starting important conversations makes the difference between just another office and a safe space.
The SHAPE Survey measures psychological health in conjunction to the factors outside work that affect employee productivity. Along with our 100 data points on employee wellness, we also provide scientifically backed guidance on how to get your workforce in tip-top shape. Get the big picture right and chart a course to employee happiness. They will thank you.
¹Ben Wigert, “The Future of Hybrid Work: 5 Key Questions Answered with Data,” Gallup.com (Gallup, March 28, 2022), https://www.gallup.com/workplace/390632/future-hybrid-work-key-questions-answered-data.aspx.
²“Relationship Breakdown and the Workplace,” Howard Kennedy, accessed March 29, 2022, https://www.howardkennedy.com/en/Latest/Article/Relationship-breakdown-and-the-workplace.
³“Relationship Breakdown and the Workplace,” The 4 Habits, January 13, 2022, https://the4habits.com/relationship-breakdown-and-the-workplace/.
⁴Gallup, “State of the American Manager,” Gallup.com (Gallup, February 21, 2022), https://www.gallup.com/services/182138/state-american-manager.aspx.
⁵Hill, Linda A, and Kent Lineback. Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. Print.
⁶“One Third of Your Life Is Spent at Work,” Gettysburg College, accessed March 29, 2022, https://www.gettysburg.edu/news/stories?id=79db7b34-630c-4f49-ad32-4ab9ea48e72b.