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26 November 2014

Their Business may become Your Business: Managing Personal Problems in the Workplace

This article was originally published in the Independent Schools' Bursars Association (ISBA) Bursars Review.

Introduction

Schools have an expectation, not unreasonably, that the employees they recruit through their various methods of selection and screening are adequately skilled and competent to do the job.  They also have some expectation that the recruited colleague is emotionally and intellectually resilient, to the extent that they can ride the storms of the office politics and the vicissitudes of teachers and pupils.  However, business-critical this may be, it is a competence difficult to test through the selection process, and is often no more than an assumption derived by the recruiting school from one or two conversations with the shortlisted candidates, verified by testimonials not of his or her choosing.

Yet employees bring to the workplace not only their individual skills, aptitudes and attitudes, but the backdrop of a home life, social life and all the pressures and joys that they impose.  During this employment they may get married, have babies, suffer bereavements, divorce or house-moves and so on, and the school has no upfront information on how well they will function through their fluctuating fortunes.

According to a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), resilience has a compelling history in psychology and psychiatry.  Initially, research focused on developmental studies of children who were functioning well, despite less than healthy family backgrounds.  Subsequently, extensive health-related research looked at the effects of personal resilience for coping with traumatic situations; the factors that “buffer” individuals from stressors; and the later development of related concepts such as hardiness, sustainability, self-efficacy, personal causation, learned resourcefulness, sense of coherence, locus of control, potency and stamina.  A consistent theme among the definitions of resilience is a sense of recovery and rebounding, despite adversity or change.

Employee resilience

The research literature has identified three categories of individual resilience, much of which is assumed by employers to be a given attribute in a good performer, and may form part of a competency framework for performance and reward management, with almost “moral” overtones:

1. Personality/individual characteristics – Resilience is internal to the individual and is seen as an innate ability the individual possesses that forms part of their personality.  These include:

  • internal locus of control (control over one’s life);
  • perseverance;
  • emotional management and awareness;
  • optimism;
  • perspective;
  • sense of humour;
  • self-efficacy (belief in own capabilities);
  • the ability to problem-solve.

2. Environment – Resilience is wholly dependent on the experiences that a person has with their environment i.e. the social support they receive from family, school community etc, irrespective of the person’s personality.

3. Person–environment – Resilience is a product of a person’s personality, in combination with environmental influences such as family, peers and social environment.

Personal trauma and stress factors

The school is neither responsible for the stress caused outside of the workplace, nor can they prevent the variable impact on the individual worker.  The school has a duty of care to all its employees and may be caught out for failing to respond supportively to risks to individual health, if those risks are heightened by the workplace provisions or practices.  Whilst the school may not know of the personal circumstances, once the circumstances become known, the school has both a business and care interest in supporting and managing the risks to which the employee is exposed.

The unexpected personal crises that are now being brought into the workplace are more common as the demography of the workforce, the social and economic drivers and the nature of both business and education change.  Some of these changes may include:

  • an ageing workforce (baby-boomers);
  • a more mobile and unconventional emerging workforce (Generation Y);
  • increase in concerns about family finances;
  • domestic disputes and relationship breakdown;
  • changing ways of working in line with parental expectation, ICT literacy and accessibility;
  • changing pupil and parental profiles and demands.

Schools may respond to this volatile environment by a variety of strategic changes, to include reconfiguring jobs, changing the culture and operating environment, refocusing positive leadership models, and building new relationships and networks with stakeholders and external influencers.

Yet even within a resilient organisation, a great deal is asked of individual employees who, as suggested above, are differentially susceptible to pressure and change from whatever source.  More circumspect schools may well consider managing and responding more engagingly to employee challenges as a means of minimising business risk.  Whilst they may have little or no scope to influence personality, they can influence behaviours and develop in individuals skills of self-management which add value to the school.

Perhaps the most prevalent social and economic trauma which individuals encounter is relationship and family breakdown.  The employee will be juggling with any number of personal emotional challenges triggered since, for example:

  • their spouse/partner asked them to leave or their spouse/partner has left the family home, leaving the employee in a state of shock;
  • due to the spouse/partner’s departure, the employee has childcare problems;
  • the employee fears losing the family home and the future is uncertain;
  • there has been or is still domestic violence in the home;
  • as parent or grandparent, the employee has been refused contact with their  children in an atmosphere of conflict and disruption;
  • the spouse/partner is making derogatory remarks on social networking sites;
  • the employee has been made aware that the spouse/partner has been unfaithful;
  • the employee has received divorce papers;
  • the parties are attending family mediation, which the employee is finding to be very stressful (schools should give consideration as to allowing employees time off to attend such sessions);
  • the employee has started drinking alcohol in the evenings “to deal with the stress”.

In addition to the emotional stress, the financial crisis that this can create is a driver of acute stress which is not short-term in duration.  Examples may well include any, or a combination, of:

  • the main bread winner, having left the home, has left the employee unable to afford the monthly expenses;
  • the spouse/partner has threatened that they will not contribute financially in the short or long term, even though legally they should;
  • the spouse/partner has withdrawn the joint savings from the joint bank accounts;
  • the employee is worrying about a considerable existing joint debt;
  • the absent parent is refusing to pay child maintenance to the employee;
  • the spouse/partner has taken the only family car;
  • there is a family business to manage;
  • the spouse/partner is already actively selling joint assets for sole personal gain.

The above scenarios are just a few examples of many possibilities, and none of them lies within the control or influence of the school.  Yet the impact of this disruption on the individual, the team and ultimately the school, can be critical.  In the workplace, affected employees may display emotions when the resilience breaks down: upset; tearful; angry; abrupt; not thinking straight; distracted; inconsistent.  They may become poor timekeepers, or take more domestic emergency time off.  They may request compassionate leave, but the problems are longer-term than that, and short-term responses are not likely to offer effective solutions.

More than half of public sector organisations report an increase in stress-related absence over the past year, compared with just under two-fifths of the private sector.  These personal or domestic difficulties may well contribute to the level and patterns of absenteeism in circumstances where employees feel they cannot cope, and the workplace adds to the pressure rather than offers a diversion and release from it.

Effective employer responses

In addition to managing absences effectively, with return to work interviews and adjustments to working practices where desirable, the school may take steps to boost employee resilience in circumstances where the individual’s social and environmental supports are under attack.  There are a variety of measures and benefits, which the employer may well provide, from which an employee under this kind of pressure can select something which works for them.  Some employers offer:

  • employee assistance programmes, including limited counselling;
  • access to financial advice;
  • occupational health assessment;
  • flexible working patterns, including flexi-time or homeworking;
  • training in self-management and time-management;
  • gym membership;
  • on-site physiotherapy or massage;
  • general health and well-being promotion.

Potential workplace triggers for added distress might be reviewed and minimised, such as:

  • long hours and few breaks;
  • unrealistic expectations or deadlines;
  • unmanageable workloads, or lack of control over work;
  • negative relationships or poor communication;
  • workplace culture, or lack of management support;
  • job insecurity or change management;
  • high-risk roles;
  • lone working or a dysfunctional, unsupportive team.

Finally, it is worth schools considering investment in management development to aid managers in dealing with the impact of personal issues brought into work.