How to support your staff during a difficult time

Wednesday 16 October 2019
Mental health crises. Divorce. Redundancy. Illness in the family. We speak to managers about how they created safe spaces for colleagues going through periods of anxiety and stress.
person walking on wooden pier

A few years ago, one of my colleagues lost their nephew to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Our manager was excellent: my colleague received the news in the middle of her shift, and immediately my manager stepped up to take over her tasks for the day and called a taxi to her home so she could travel back to her family in Wales. The manager then rung around other staff members to cover future shifts indefinitely and spoke to the regional manager to let her know that she may need back-up from other stores in the region. Although our manager could not extend the period of paid leave, due to it being a part-time retail position, our manager made sure this person knew they could be away from work for as long as she needed to be. A few weeks later, she began to be phased back into work; as she was a keyholder for the store, she was able to pick up the quieter morning shifts until she regained her confidence at work.

It can be very difficult to navigate a team member’s personal problems while at work; without tact, you could inadvertently make the individual feel worse. At a fundamental level it requires empathy skills so that you evaluate the situation and offer the appropriate support.

We spoke to managers in the UK who have supported their staff through stressful periods – personal and professional – and got their advice on how to approach different situations.

An individual’s management style has been found to be the third most common cause of stress at work – behind workload and challenges in your personal life. “The way in which line managers respond to employee suffering is crucial,” says Amy Bradley, author of forthcoming book The Human Moment: The Positive Power of Compassion in the Workplace. One of the most difficult-to-master aspects of a managerial position is tailoring your approach to each individual. Though some of your colleagues are looking for a sense of being looked after, others may not want to talk about the issue at all during work hours. It’s down to you to know your team and understand how they want to be supported.

“One simple question is required of managers to ensure they bring compassion to their role,” says Bradley. “How can I help this person to have a better day? Line managers should be proactive in their care and concern, but it is important that they ask the individual how they would like to be supported when they are facing a difficult time.”


Redundancy is one of the most uncomfortable tasks of management. Part of what makes it difficult is that it’s often not specific to the employee, but a business requirement that’s ultimately out of your hands. How do you talk to your team while staying true to your organisation?

Paul Holcroft, associate direct at Croner, advises firms on their HR policies – part of which covers redundancy packages. He says that honesty and clarity are the components of successful support.

“Being made redundant can be an incredibly distressing time, so it is essential that employers maintain regular dialogue with affected staff,” Holcroft says. “Given the complexity of a redundancy procedure, employers should provide individuals with a clear explanation of their rights and a timeframe for when decisions will be made. This reduces any unnecessary stress and ill feeling among the workforce. Employees with a minimum of two years’ service are eligible for a reasonable amount of time off to look for new work or to arrange training for future employment.”

Allowing your staff time to look for another job during this time is essential to dispel any further dips in morale at work. It shows that you hope they will succeed after this setback, and offers support/aftercare.

Ill health

Malcolm Cairns is CEO of HSC Health, which provides cancer support services. The company deals with the practical, clinical, and emotional needs of people going through cancer, and also supports their professional teams and families. His key point is this: show that you value the individual’s input to the team and the company. That will help them, especially if they’ve been away for a prolonged period of time.

“Cancer care should be a crucial part of your team’s safety and wellbeing,” Cairns says. Research by Macmillan shows that 100,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year, and of the companies that were surveyed, 70% of respondents said that accommodating their employees’ needs for cancer care support were easy and achievable. “Companies can make a powerful contribution to the ongoing care of their employees with cancer. There is so much value attached to your existing workforce; they are often irreplaceable, and supporting them back into the workforce is extremely important. A cancer diagnosis is devastating; people don’t need to worry about work too. Being a supportive employer can help reduce their anxiety and give them the confidence to cope with cancer at work. Many employees find it difficult to adjust to ‘normal’ life following a diagnosis of cancer. Be flexible. When people return to work, the rest of the team will be delighted to see them, however, they may feel tired or have other side effects as a result of treatment.”

Personal relationships

A personal problem such as divorce inevitably affects performance at work. As well as the emotional stress, the individual will also be going through financial issues and time depletion. There’ll be difficult meetings with lawyers and their spouse, for example. Henry Brookman, of Brookman solicitors, has overseen countless divorces – so knows the pressures that build throughout this time. His advice for supporting your employees? Be understanding.

“When an employee is going through a divorce, it is likely to be incredibly stressful trying to continue as normal during working hours,” he says. “As a result, the employee’s requirements and availability may change, for example, they may need to work more hours in order to afford to live in their property, or they may need to cut their hours due to new childcare requirements. Reviewing a role with the employee going through a divorce is a sensible meeting to have; it can be discussed whether their hours need to be changed to accommodate their new situation or whether there may be a different role within the business that may be better suited. If they believe their current role needs to change, you can explore what would work best for them. Being an understanding manager in this situation can help an individual come to terms with the situation, allowing them to express their situation honestly and openly.”

No matter your seniority or sector, your working life will in some way be impacted by your personal life, and vice-versa. Think about how you would like to be supported should you go through a difficult time of any nature, and start from there. Successful support starts with empathy and understanding. Not only will this make this member of staff feel valued, it will encourage their loyalty to the company for treating them well while they were struggling. Whether the issue is with their mental health, personal relationships, health, as their manager it is your responsibility to help them perform well at work without sacrificing their wellbeing.

CMI’s professional standards outlines the competencies you need to support your staff – see which areas you can improve on today.

Image: Alex Duffy Unsplash