Supporting staff through difficult life events
By Annie Makoff on 20 March 2023
Most workplaces are comprised of five generations – from the traditionalists (born between 1928 and 1945) right through to Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012). At an individual level, this means that a significant proportion of the workforce will be going through a difficult life stage at any one time, be it chronic illness, the menopause, divorce, bereavement, redundancy, infertility treatment or coming out to friends and colleagues. Whatever it is, it’s likely to impact an individual’s work, not to mention wellbeing.
So how do employers go about ensuring they’re providing the right kind of support for their employees?
For Ngozi Weller, founder of workplace wellbeing consultants Aurora, it’s about employee listening. “There’s no point in guessing what issues your employees may be struggling with or replicating a wellbeing initiative another company is implementing,” she says. “Find out what’s going on in your company. You do this by regular listening exercises: surveys, questionnaires, feedback sessions. Ensure responses are anonymous but knowing the rough age range is helpful to identify generational issues.”
Regular, targeted listening exercises are key, rather than just one-off surveys and to avoid survey fatigue and low response rates, ensure employees know that findings will lead to practical action. “Employers must be very careful to go about this in the right way: they need to be prepared to address any issues which are flagged up.”
Gaps in support
James Hayhurst, founder of The Parents Promise and Positive Parenting Alliance (PPA) told d&i leaders that divorce and separation is one area that is often missing in workplace support initiatives, with many employees expected to just ‘get on with it’.
Yet new PPA research showed that 9 out of 10 employees said family breakdown impacted on their work performance and 52 per cent said they worried about losing their job as a result of a separation. “Yet just 9 per cent of employees said their organisations had a support policy around relationship breakdowns – most organisations don’t,” says Hayhurst. “There’s a real lack of awareness around the impact separation and divorce can have – it’s a grieving process.”
In response to the findings, PPA launched a new divorce support initiative for major UK employers and to date, Asda, Metro Bank, NatWest, PwC, Tesco, Unilever and Vodafone have signed up.
There appears to be lack of support for bereaved employees, too, although the main issue here, says HR consultant and coach Gemma Bullivant, is the lack of flexibility. “There’s a legacy of focusing too much on structured policies such as bereavement leave rather than working with the individual,” says Bullivant. “Does this situation qualify for bereavement leave? Do they need 1 day or 3? When will they return? But you just can’t put a timeframe on grief. You can’t just give someone a day’s leave to attend a funeral and then expect them to return to work and be absolutely fine.”
In Bullivant’s view, many bereavement leave policies fail to take into account individuals’ experience as well as the different types of grief from anticipatory grief, peripheral and unresolved grief. No two people grieve the same way and even the experience of loss will be different each time.
Grief should ‘never’ be isolated from mental health conversations, says Bullivant. It needs to be viewed through a holistic health and wellbeing lens, with integrated systems in place to ensure people have the support they need. “There needs to be the flexibility to allow bereaved and grieving employees to take the time off they need and the time and space to ease themselves back into work.”
These situations are unlikely to be linear. Weller recalls one individual she worked with who was struggling with the first anniversary of their fiancée’s death. “The employer wasn’t very sympathetic and couldn’t understand why they needed time off again.”
Yet for all the nuances of life events, Weller believes there is an extremely effective solution, but it’s not one which will change things overnight. Employers who want to do the right thing and support their staff going through difficult life events need to be in it for the long haul.
It’s not about one-off awareness days, half-hearted mental health first aid training or a tatty information poster about an EAP. As Weller insists, it has to go beyond tactics and tick-box exercises.
Line manager training
“Train your line managers!” she insists. “This is the only way to embed a supportive health and wellbeing culture which is adopted by the CEO right the way down to the shopfloor. Everyone in the organisation needs to live and breathe this approach and that can only be done through line manager training.”
Weller, whose consultancy specialises in line manager training to improve health and wellbeing, has seen first-hand the positive impact it can have. “Don’t train your line managers to become counsellors or therapists. Train them to identify struggling individuals, train them to have the emotional intelligence to broach difficult conversations sensitively and train them how to support the individual emotionally and practically.”
According to Weller, there’s a big difference in a line manager saying: ‘let me know if you need anything!’ and ‘I’ve noticed you’ve not been yourself lately and I think something may be wrong. Let’s have a chat and see how we can address it.’ A struggling individual will rarely approach their manager in the first example, but in the latter, the manager has already identified a problem and is already putting in time and effort.
“You can’t have a line manager who says things like ‘in my day, we just got on with it,’ Weller explains. “So in a way, it doesn’t really matter what the life event happens to be – it can be absolutely anything. What matters is the supportive culture. And how do we achieve this? The answer will always be line manager training.”
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