Drawing a Line: How Many Personal Issues Belong at Work?

Published: Apr 08, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By: Sylvia Lafair, Ph.D.

We all wish everyone would leave their personal problems at the office door and just get the work done. Paradoxically, most of us also wish we could help when an employee’s personal situation causes them distress. Yet, there is a fine line between caring and compassionate and cold and callous.

As economic pressures increase, so does the time dealing with personal employee issues.

The Place for Personal Issues
Why can’t we keep our personal issues from spilling over into the work setting? Why does stress get so dialed up at work? We have been taught that we need to keep our personal problems at home but it does little. We continue to bring them to work with us.
One of the main facts is that when stress hits the hot button we are all prone to revert to behaviors we learned as children for survival and security. So, if you think your co-workers or direct reports are behaving like babies, you’re probably right! Knowing this can help you with the difficult conversations that inevitably need to occur if the business of business is to get done. You may not be able to resolve issues, yet you can point employees in the right direction. Patterns we learned as youngsters may have helped us cope then, but these patterns get in the way when we become adults, acting as smoke screens.

Patterns from Home
Having a working knowledge of the patterns that we bring from home to the workplace can help us help valued employees find positive solutions.

First, here are signs of distress and reverting to old patterns of behavior:

  • Increased absenteeism (pattern of avoider)
  • Reduced productivity (pattern of procrastinator)
  • Friction with employees (pattern of persecutor)
  • Crying or yelling (pattern of drama queen or king)
  • Dressing inappropriately (pattern of rebel)
  • Becoming accident-prone (pattern of victim)
  • Coming in very early/staying very late (pattern of martyr)
  • Joking about everything (pattern of clown)
  • Constant forgetfulness (pattern of denial)

The following guidelines can help you navigate that narrow place between being too cold or too caring. Please remember, work is not a rehab facility. If you have a valuable employee who has been a great producer, you can offer the help of an EAP, modify work hours, offer short-term leave, or realign responsibilities if possible.

It is not your job to diagnose or treat. Yet, often when employees are reticent about getting help you can ask some open-ended questions that will help employees decide to take action.

Open-ended questions can begin the process of defining what can and can’t be achieved. First, share your concerns using “I statements.” Start with “I don’t know what the problem is. However, I’m here to help. Of course, if you choose not to share personal information that is okay; it’s really not my business. Yet, your performance is my business. Help me understand how we can make changes that need to happen.”

You do not have to outline all the concerns. This is not a performance review; it is an offer to be compassionate and look for solutions. If you begin to list all the problems or offer quick solutions, you are in the role of “good/bad parent” and the childhood patterns lock in. You want the employee to respond from a mature, healthy place rather than from knee-jerk old behaviors. Therefore, ask questions that will hold an employee responsible and accountable. Some staff members will be willing to stay with the present conversation, others need time to recalibrate.

Check in. Ask if the employee if he or she wants to continue or needs a break. Also, remember, you are part of the equation. If you need a time to regroup, take it. Offer a set time later that day or the next day to respond. Let the employee choose the time; this is part of accountability. However, no more that one day should go by without a response.

Talking It Over
When the employee is ready to talk, it is your job to let him or her present his or her concerns. You can listen actively and then say, “Tell me more” and wait. That is part of your “gravity role.” The simple act of saying, “Tell me more” often creates the safe space for the employee to share underlying concerns. After that, it is up to you to respond with a set of conditions that need to be met and a time line of agreements.

Next steps: If there is no change and no response that shows change is possible, you must again come from an “I statement.” Here is an example: “I feel frustrated that there is no change. I don’t know what the personal problem is; however you are putting your job at risk..  Do not lecture, plead, use fear, blame, or judge. Be clear and concise. This meeting is usually shorter than the prior one.

Again, if you take on the role of judge, the conversation often resembles that between a child and parent and the old patterned behavior get embedded.

Besides keeping alert to specific personnel problems, firms need to adopt a structural orientation, creating office environments in which old patterns don’t get much room to grow. Until recently, most companies have frowned on the public expression of emotions, especially negative ones; there is simply no room for anger, jealousy, disappointment, fear, frustration, rejection, or sadness. There was no place to talk about financial problems at home, physical conditions, or relational issues such as separation, divorce, or badly behaving children.

Getting It Out
The mantra, “Don’t bring it to work” shuts down self-expression. When we can’t talk in an adult way sharing our concerns and struggles, stress builds and emotions get buried in deeper, more primal parts of our nervous systems until, like a latent volcano, they begin to bubble and finally erupt. Hence, we are back in fight, flight, or freeze mentality from our young years.

Here are some suggestions for rethinking workplace structure. These are long-term solutions that create a culture of trust and collaboration: 

  • Create balance: Offices structured with excessive emphasis on rules and   boundaries create secrets and silence; those which are too flexible are filled with gossip and rumors. In a balanced workplace there is a requirement to ask lots of open-ended questions and check out assumptions directly with the source. Accountability is rewarded.
  • Encourage the safe expression of emotions: Stiff upper lip cultures promote the “everybody is always happy and in control” setting. It is impossible and phony. Tell-it-like-it-is cultures often promote too much time talking about and analyzing what is done and said, and work is put on the back burner. It is the dreaded “analysis paralysis” environment. When we can say what we feel and think and express ourselves respectfully and honestly, there is a healthy capacity to “see it, say it, and let it go.”
  • Educate: Have brown bag lunch lectures to discuss health subjects, financial information, and relationship tips. This is in addition to wellness programs to help employees stop smoking or consider weight issues. Although firms cannot take away fear of financial concerns, offering educational seminars can help. This is the same with parenting and partnering issues. Sometimes just one seminar can give an employee exactly what he or she needs to solve a personal problem.

Workplaces for the 21st century are more complex than they have ever been. We now go at the speed of light and take so little time to think through priorities, we often stay on the treadmill of patterned responses. Studies in emotional intelligence call upon executives to understand not merely the financial nuts and bolts of a business but also the communication and emotional patterns of those they lead. Becoming pattern aware builds upon cognitive psychology and emotional intelligence. Helping employees observe, understand, and transform their patterns is a way to engage a healthy, committed, and loyal workforce.

About the Author(s)

Sylvia Lafair, Ph.D., is the author of Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success and president of Creative Energy Options, Inc.  She is a leadership educator and executive coach. For more information, visit [email protected]; http://www.sylvialafair.com/