Helping team members with their personal problems

Recently I was talking to a manager friend about one-to-one meetings with team members. He noted that often some of his team talked about personal problems they are encountering (relationships, housing, etc) and wondered how far we should go in helping them resolve those problems.

My advice was—as a manager—to listen and be supportive, but to be very careful before suggesting specific actions the indivdual might take to resolve the situation.

There are two potential problems here. One is that very, very, very few of us are professional counsellors. Therefore giving the right advice in the right way is likely to lead to imperfect—possibly even problematic—outcomes. Another problem is that it blurs even further the boundaries between work and personal life.

Regarding providing the right kind of guidance I have occasionally said to people, “Have you spoken to such-and-such organisation?” There are established counselling and support organisations out there, which are staffed with experienced professionals. Pointing the team member to those is likely to lead to better outcomes than anything we non-professionals might “help” with.

I’ve also worked with a few organisations that have employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Here the employer provides free access to a confidential third party service that can help employees through a broad range of problems, whether they are financial, health-related, or any number of other things. Typically the only information these providers share with the employer is how well-used the services is; it’s important any other details remain confidential.

Regarding the boundaries between work and personal life, it’s true there is always an overlap, but expanding that overlap can easily lead to problems. I find it very positive when team members share aspects of their personal lives with me—and I will often do the same with them. We cannot completely separate our work-selves and our personal-life-selves, so opening up some of our personal lives at work helps explain to each other why are like we are on any particular day or week. It creates empathy.

But if we try to solve our team members’ personal problems for them, and we take responsibility for suggesting specific actions, then we can also become responsible for the consequences. Suddenly the work/personal overlap is much greater than is good for anyone, and things can become even more difficult.

So helping our team members broadly is a good thing to do, but we do need to be aware of the limits and the consequences.

Photo by Nenad Stojkovic

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