Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Stress Spills Over Into The Workplace

October 18, 1999

Personal problems are normal. Life has its times when things are out of kilter and we have to deal with wrenching, upsetting circumstances. The Psalms say, "Man is born unto trouble as surely as sparks fly upward." What are some of these troubles? It might be a major conflict with a spouse, financial pressures, a car accident, a teenager being out all night, an ill child, news of an illness to a loved one, and more. Much, much more.

Problems ignored or denied may show up in workplace accidents, strained relationships at work or loss of productivity. Employees need support to deal with difficult events or major changes in their lives.

So what is our responsibility when we are upset or a co-worker’s or employee’s personal stress affects us? How does an organization react when the productivity and safety of others in the workplace is compromised by non-work related problems?

I interviewed psychologists Robert Driscoll of Knoxville TN and Jim Quick at the University of Texas, Arlington on this issue. Here are a few of their ideas.

When we have a problem. We are not indispensable. Nobody is. We need to be able to read our own body signals. It is OK to take time off when we are not in good shape - when we are preoccupied, depressed, have poor concentration, when our reactions are slowed, or when our mood is irritable and reactive.

An organization can help by having employees identify themselves so permission can be given to take time off for personal problems. Who knows more about what is going on than the person embroiled in the problem?

The concept of personal or "mental health" days off is a valuable benefit to workers and an important safety valve for the company. The solution may be as simple as a good night’s sleep. No repercussions, penalties, or stigma should be attached to using these days. The permission to use these days should be regarded as a positive invitation.

When a co-worker has a problem. A friend on the job is in an excellent position to identify a distressed or distracted worker and to intervene. Friends don’t let their friends drive naked. A co-worker can suggest getting help, taking time off, and encourage responsible action. Friends can be frank with each other. "What is going on?" "What do you need to do for yourself?"

A program that encourages workers to look out for one another is helpful. However, it shouldn’t be viewed as a way for employees to snitch on each other. Management can also identify who in the organization has a trusting relationship with the distressed employee. A co-worker may be the most likely person to approach a distressed employee to give feedback and show concern about a problem. There also may be certain people who definitely shouldn’t be the ones to approach the distressed worker.

What is the role of a supervisor? A supervisor should be aware of an employee’s usual habits in the workplace. When there is a deviation from that routine, a personal problem in that employee’s life may account for the change. It is a deviation from normal baseline behavior that merits attention.

Supervisors should know their people well enough to spot changes in demeanor, appearance, attitude, mood and other signals that indicate that something is wrong. They may have to go out of their way to get to know loners and learn to "read" them the best they can.

Depending on the relationship, a supervisor may be comfortable in asking penetrating personal questions, and showing concern about personal matters as well as job performance. A supervisor can bring up a job performance issue by referring to a particular behavior and contrasting it with the worker’s usual fine performance. "I’m confused. Help me understand what is going on." Some supervisors may be predisposed to communicate on a personal level and already have a relationship of trust.

On the other hand, a supervisor may be perceived as intrusive in trying to learn about the private life of someone they supervise. The employee may not wish to expose their vulnerability to their immediate supervisor. The supervisor should take a non-judgmental view of a request for personal time off, be quick to suggest time off, and leave the discussion on vague physical terms, such as, "Get some rest."

A supervisor can refer the employee to an Employee Assistance Program that is both credible and confidential. If no EAP is available, a supervisor or someone in the organization should be knowledgeable about professional and community resources for emotional support. Oftentimes a company may have a human resources person who is seen as approachable, nurturing, and informed about local resources.

What is the role of management? The attitude and atmosphere about concern for employees is set at the top. Polices, attitudes and flexibility about employee well-being can make a difference. There needs to be a balance between bottom line considerations and meeting employee needs. Solutions need to be win/win.

Caregiving should run through the system in the way top management treats middle management and so forth. Part of the corporate culture can be a "be prepared to be supportive" mindset when it comes to dealing with associates. The example of managers and supervisors willing to take personal days off will affect the attitudes of front line workers.

When bad things happen and we are vulnerable, it is comforting to know that the people we work for and with are flexible and supportive.