A Delicate Balance: Responding to Employee Health Issues

February 10, 2015
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Health is a very personal matter, but when an employee’s poor health causes problems in the workplace, you have to act.

Scenario 1: Ashley has used up a year’s worth of sick leave in the last two months, and has asked for more. She doesn’t divulge any details, and doesn’t exhibit any obvious symptoms.

Scenario 2: Eric was recently hospitalized for depression. He gets fatigued easily and has trouble concentrating and completing tasks. His co-workers resent having to correct his errors and take on extra work.

Scenario 3: Julia frequently comes to work late, irritable and tired and smelling like alcohol. She takes lengthy bathroom breaks and sometimes leaves early. Her work, oddly enough, doesn’t seem affected.

MST blog 0215 01 image 1As a manager, you know that your employees don’t usually leave their personal issues behind when they walk in the office door every morning. What happens outside of work can easily affect a worker’s attitude, productivity, and ability to deal with the stress that is common in today’s workplace.

When an employee’s behavior, attendance, and work output suffer because of a health issue, though, it’s important that you:

Evaluate the impact on other employees.

This is critical. Ashley may not be pulling her weight because of all of her absences. Eric is clearly creating some conflict in the ranks. Julia isn’t affecting anyone else’s workload, but her co-workers may feel that you need to step in because of her erratic work hours and her demeanor.

An employee who has a health-related problem can trigger resentment of that person and of you if you do nothing.

Communicate with caution.

You can’t ask Ashley for any personal health-related information, and you can’t ask Julia whether she has an addiction problem. You know about Eric’s depression because he told you about it in confidence, but his co-workers don’t know.

You can talk to all of them about the impact of their health-related difficulties. In the process of discussing company policy, you might open an avenue for a more frank discussion by asking if there’s anything in the work environment and their specific jobs that is affecting their performance and conscientiousness. Ask if they’d be more comfortable talking to someone outside of the department, like an HR professional.

You can be empathetic without pandering when you discuss solutions.

MST blog 0215 01 image 2Take advantage of professional resources.

If you work for a small business that doesn’t have a human resources department, at least explore what options are available through company benefits (like your health insurance provider). You might also considering enlisting the help of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in your area. These professional groups provide counseling and referral in a wide variety of areas, including health concerns, substance abuse, and other personal issues that can trigger stress and affect work performance.

There’s a saying that makes the rounds occasionally on Facebook; it asks us to be kind, because we never know what battles other people are fighting. Balance that attitude with your management duties – your responsibilities to all of your employees – and seek counsel from professionals when you need to. You can’t solve your employees’ actual health problems, but your display of concern and fairness to all may prompt them to face their situations honestly.

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