Personal Business

Jan. 1, 2012
If you think what happens outside the shop stays outside the shop, think again. Here’s why your employees’ personal struggles can make or break your business—and what you can do about it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if work life and personal life kept to their own quarters? Employees would come to work and do their job without last night’s argument or next week’s bills occupying their attention. They’d deal with personal matters at home and focus on work at work.

But that’s not reality, says psychology and human behavior expert Byron Bissell. Employees commonly deal with personal struggles that weigh on their mind—like finances, relationships, and childcare and parenting problems. All of those things come to work with them.And then it becomes your problem, too. That’s because the employee may be distracted, stressed or depressed, which Bissell says has a detrimental impact on their ability to concentrate on work responsibilities. There’s a high probability of poor work performance, inefficiency, lack of productivity and spotty attendance when personal stresses weigh heavy on an employee’s mind.

Julie Watkin, senior vice president of human resources for ABRA Auto Body & Glass, suggests employers offer a helping hand to offset those negative effects. Steering employees toward professional resources to assist with their problems helps maintain a productive workforce. And you don’t have to be part of a huge corporate chain to provide that kind of employee assistance—small shops have options, too.

Why Worry?

It’s not the shop owner’s responsibility to offer any assistance when employees are dealing with personal problems. So why do it? In addition to their work performance dropping, Bissell says employee problems can affect the overall health and culture of your business.

“If you have all of your business insurance bundled together—property, health, life, long-term disability and worker’s compensation—it’s likely you have access to an EAP.”
—Willie Ramirez, assistant vice president of human resources and administration, CARSTAR

Personal problems turn into attitude problems, Bissell says. Employees are primed to be less civil and courteous, and that can spread throughout an organization. “It’s a contagion,” he says.

While it may be an option to fire the employee or to just ignore the problem, Watkin says those options have their own troubling side effects:

• New employees aren’t cheap. Ignoring employee personal struggles can lead to higher turnover, she says. Everybody knows how hard it is to find quality employees today, and how expensive it is hire and train new employees. You want to do everything you can to retain your solid performers.

• Apathy kills morale. Firing a troubled employee or sticking your head in the sand tells your staff one thing: You don’t care about them. Send that message, Watkin says, and your staff will lose respect for your values and begin to see your business in a negative light.

But I’m No Therapist…

Shop operators are not counselors, nor should they try to be. But there are a few tools and services to add to your human resources practices to help struggling employees.

The first step is communication. Sit down with the employee and listen to their issue. Help the employee understand that their problem is getting in the way of their work, and carefully point out that a bad time at work will likely just increase their stress at home.

A conversation like that is important to have as soon as you notice an employee’s work performance slipping uncharacteristically, Watkin says. Be empathetic and express concern—sometimes employees just need a listening ear.

Watkin cautions against getting too involved with the employee’s situation. Being overly involved in an employee’s life can prevent an owner from making good decisions for the business.

So the next step is to encourage and facilitate employees to seek outside help. Watkins says shop operators should provide employees with information and resources where they can get professional assistance. The following are good ways to start:

• Obtain information for community resources available in your local area, such as the United Way First Call for Help.

• Create a database of local nonprofit organizations that offer professional services.

• Contact local social service agencies for referrals to low-cost or free services.

Once you obtain contact information for those resources, add it to your human resources handbook so employees have easy access to the information when they need it.

Employee Assistance Programs

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are the best thing business owners can offer struggling employees, says Willie Ramirez, assistant vice president of human resources and administration for CARSTAR. And EAPs are often affordable for employers.

EAPs are crisis management resources for employees that provide access to professional counselors and information. EAPs can help with most employee problems—including substance abuse, emotional distress, financial concerns, legal issues, relationships or grief counseling—at no cost to them.

“It’s a nonthreatening, confidential way for employees to talk to someone about a real crisis issue,” Ramirez says.

Both CARSTAR and ABRA offer EAPs to employees through the companies’ health benefit packages. ABRA uses an EAP called Work-Life Balance, offered through the Unum Group. Watkin says the program gives employees access to professional short-term problem resolution assistance through telephone consultations, educational materials and face-to-face meetings with counselors or consultants.

Ramirez says some health insurance providers offer EAPs for free or reduced costs—which many shop owners don’t realize.

“If you have all of your business insurance bundled together—property, health, life, long-term disability and worker’s compensation—it’s likely you have access to an EAP,” Ramirez says.

He suggests checking with your insurance provider and broker to inquire about access to an EAP. Sometimes insurance providers don’t offer it, but brokers will as an added benefit of doing business with them, Ramirez says.

If your company does decide to offer an EAP, make sure to communicate that benefit to employees, Ramirez says. Add the information

to your employee handbook, and hang program posters in your shop’s break room.

Be Flexible

Depending on the employee’s situation, they may need some time to work through their problem. Providing work flexibility is another thing shop operators can do to help.

Identify whether there are reasonable accommodations you can make for employees, he says. You could allow the employee to take a few days off work, or to reduce their schedule for the short-term.

Of course, those accommodations can’t drag on forever, Watkin says. Remember that the rest of your staff is picking up the slack when an employee is out. The work flexibility you offer needs to be based on your business structure, staffing situation and your team’s ability to carry the load.

For example, if it’s your painter who needs to take time off, you may not be able to afford them as much time as you could with an estimator or customer service representative, Ramirez says.

“Be as flexible as possible,” Ramirez says. “But only do what you can afford to do, without allowing your business to suffer as a result.” 

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