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The 5 Telltale Signs of an Employee in Distress

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When should you intervene in a work/personal issue or should you? How much should you ask about a team member’s personal problem? How can you find the balance of what to ask or not ask and what are the telltale signs to watch for?

Have you ever watched a really good employee begin to slide down a slippery slope of poor performance? Have you wondered how much you should intervene? Have you ever spent a sleepless night knowing the problem is far more than a work situation?

These are the dilemmas all supervisors and managers face at one time or another. The question is where to draw the line. There is the temptation to diagnose the problem, or simply ignore it. Like a bad cold, you hope a week of coughing and sneezing, and a large dose of vitamin C will cure everything and its back-to-business as usual.

However, once you see a pattern of behavior begin to show up, it is vital that you do something. No, you are not meant to prescribe or treat, yet, as a leader you are meant to take a stand and help the employee find a way out of a tough spot. When you help by pointing the individual in the right direction, you are not only doing your job as a leader, you may well save a whole family from some ugly long term consequences.

Take Rob, for example. Every Monday morning for a month he called in with one excuse after another. He had a fever; his car wouldn't start; his wife had a sprained ankle and he had to take her to the doctor; the pipe burst in the kitchen. Until recently he had been a good and valued employee, and the reasons for his absenteeism were all valid. So the tendency is to believe him and hope that the black cloud over his head goes away.

Yet, on Tuesdays there was this annoying thought that his eyes were very bloodshot and his concentration was off. By Wednesday everything seemed back to normal, so with a deep breath of relief, it was business as usual, until the cycle would start again the following Monday.

Here are the telltale signs to watch for:

  • Lack of concentration or decline in work performance
  • Frequent absences or tardiness
  • Increased interpersonal conflict with co-workers
  • Isolation or withdrawal from colleagues
  • Change in attitude or appearance

The best position any leader can take is one of caring and concern, yet, with very clear guidelines. You can address the change of behavior by stating "I know you have been coming to work late many days lately, and I wonder what is happening that is contributing to this behavior?" and then just listen. From there it is best to refer the individual to HR or to a local EAP. It is not in your best interest to become involved in the specifics of the situation.

Let me underline that while it is critical that you find a way to help your employee take an action to get some help, it is not your job to diagnose or treat; when you notice something out-of-the-ordinary going on, deal with it immediately.

Like a chronic illness, if ignored it often turns into something more serious. And if left untouched, the quality of the whole team is put in jeopardy and then you have not just one - you have a number of unhappy employees. So, once your expectations are not met, step in and take action. You and your entire staff are the better for the truth being told.

Please remember, while you can be concerned and caring, WORK IS NOT A REHAB FACILITY!

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