Guidelines for handling personal problems that impact work performance

Guidelines for handling personal problems that impact work performance

These guidelines will assist you to confidently work with employees whose work performance is impacted by a personal problem. They focus less on personal problems which do not impact work performance.  We have an EAP referral programme for almost all situations where employees face a personal problem.

The guidelines will help you to diagnose where personal problems may be present and are impacting work. Personal problems cover a wide spectrum; money problems, gambling, drinking, grief after a death, depression or relationship problems etc.

We use a ’two problem’ model whereby the employee’s problem is recognised and acknowledged but where the employee is asked to recognise and address the workplace problem i.e. the impact that personal issue is having in the workplace.



We have an obligation to be aware of the circumstances of individual employees and ensure a safe, sustainable working environment is provided.
  • To the extent that a person’s personal problems DON’T impact the work environment they are not strictly our business and employees are not obliged to share their issues, but nevertheless, we want to see them solve these issues successfully.
  • Where the problem does impact the work environment we have a responsibility to resolve that impact as quickly as practicable.
  • You don’t have to solve the personal problem to solve the work impact.
  • We are not counsellors and while our managerial responsibility is to encourage and support employees to solve their problems, offering solutions is dangerous and a conflict of interest.  We make available professional resources to help employees with personal problems.
  • The purpose of our conversations with employees, in these cases, is to resolve any workplace impact and also to help employees solve their problems themselves, if possible.
  • If we can get them moving forward with the issue and connect them with the right expertise that’s good progress.
Interaction with co-workers
  • Changes in reactions to co-workers (personal problems often show up at work first).
  • Normally easy-going – snaps at co-workers over minor things.
  • Usually sociable employee now distances himself from others or is abnormally quiet.
Attitude Changes
  • Usually upbeat, enthusiastic, motivated – now needs encouragement.
  • Noticeably more pessimistic or makes remarks like “I don’t care anymore”.
  • Loss of concentration appearing distracted.
  • No longer takes pride in their work.
Job Performance
  • If a person feels differently, they behave differently. If they behave differently, they perform differently.
  • Time off, missed deadlines, poor attention to detail or quality.
  • More often than not, job performance turns sour when a personal problem surfaces at work.
  • Anything that is out of the ordinary is a clue that something is wrong. However, be careful not to make assumptions too early.
  • Look for patterns that develop over a period of time.

Is it a personal problem or work problem?

There are two very different, but often overlapping, environments involved in dealing with personal problems and you need to keep a clear-cut differentiation between them. These are the work environment AND the employee’s personal life.
  • If an employee has a personal problem, that’s one thing. If there’s no job-performance concern, then someone else’s personal challenges are not strictly our business.
  • If you learn an employee has a personal problem and you link them with the right support – that’s a good outcome.
  • Offering good advice is often not easy and we lack the qualifications; and
    • If ‘our’ solution proves wrong or ineffective we may damage our working relationship; and
    • By becoming entangled in the employee’s private life we may compromise our ability to make managerial decisions about the employee.If an employee seeks you out for help, it frees you up to provide some advice about their problem solving options and some perspective. Remember not to counsel because;
    • If it is affecting their performance in the work environment, that’s where you need to get interested and, if it is also impacting other people in your team, you need to get very interested.  It’s time for a courageous conversation.
  • You definitely have a vested interest in fixing this.  But, from a problem management point of view, just make sure that you understand what problem you need to fix!
  • In summary, if the employee has a personal problem they are ultimately responsible for solving it.  You, however, have a different problem.  Your problem is that your employee’s personal problem is impacting work.  That’s the problem you need to fix.

Resources available to you as a manager

We have a range of suppliers and resources available to assist employees who are experiencing a personal problem. These include:
  • HR resources that can help you develop alternatives and a strategy.
  • Employees have access to EAP services.
  • The employee’s friends and family.
  • Church and other support groups.
  • Specialist agencies and services (Budget Advisory Service etc).
  • Conversation Plan: Personal Problems
  • Bear in mind that, from a performance management point of view, you are fixing the work problem that is the consequence or by-product of your employee having a personal problem.  The start point is to listen to what they are willing to tell you about their problem.  Don’t try to probe too much; just take what they are willing to offer.  If they need to think about what you’ve said overnight – that often helps.

Talking with people where it may be a personal problem that is impacting work performance

While this is a sensitive area it is our job as managers to get involved in the interests of the employee and of the business.  Use the following guidelines and the attached conversation plan so that your intervention is sensitive but effective on both counts.

Lets talk about both problems

PREPARE: by collecting what facts, you can about the nature of the problem and its effects. You need to be able to show that it is impacting the person’s work.  It’s OK to talk to fellow employees provided they are reliable, you explain the context and you are prepared to tell the employee themselves when the time is right.  Ensure your conversation is not being interrupted or overly visible to others.

OPEN: with empathy; “This conversation may be a sensitive one”.
Use the ‘2 problem’ approach i.e. “We see evidence in the workplace that there may be a personal problem” (outline that evidence……lateness, moodiness, unusually emotional, uncharacteristic moods, distracted, poor attendance etc) “AND there’s a workplace impact that can’t be accepted” (describe that impact; e.g. poor quality, productivity, customers let down, colleagues having to cover for you etc).

Indicate what typically happens if these workplace problems are not sorted. “These issues generally get worse if not sorted out quickly”. (e.g., other employees having to cover this person’s workload; limits to the amount of leave available, damage to workplace relationships, impact of ongoing poor performance on their prospects and remuneration etc, etc).  Use real judgement here.  What you say depends on the severity and duration of the workplace effects.  Our purpose in talking consequences is simply so the employee recognises the present situation can’t continue indefinitely.  People often get absorbed in their personal problems and lose perspective on the effect they are having on others.  Also, you have a team to manage and an obligation to mitigate the impact a team member’s issues have on overall performance.

Make clear that your obligation: “It’s my responsibility to resolve the workplace impacts BUT also I’m committed to try and help you help yourself through personal problems”.

Check your understanding

Repeat the outline of the story or main points back to check you understand.  Check that they appreciate there is a work impact. “Do you agree the problem(s) that need to be sorted out are….” (summarize work and personal problems and confirm their agreement to that summary).

Ask to hear their options

The question to ask at this point is “What are your options or ideas to solve both these issues?” You are looking for viable solutions to both work and personal problems.  Creating options is particularly powerful in addressing personal problems where people can often feel powerless or ‘stuck’.  Be clear whether the ‘work’ solution is OK by you or whether some other solution is required.  Avoid the temptation to add your own solutions to the personal problem even if you are confident you have them.  Usually the furthest you would safely go would be to ask questions about an option to help them test its worth. If they are stuck – ask them who they know well and trust who could help them develop options. Give them reasonable time.

Why not supply options? Counselling is risky!

If you offer options or a solution, and they do not work, the person is worse off having discussed the matter with you and you are conflicted in taking action over their not sorting the work impact out.  In addition, what works for you may not work for them.  Their context is unique.  Your objective is to help the person find their own solution rather than try to solve their problems for them.  Respected friends and family who know a lot more about their situation can best assist.  We can support by helping them to find a professional organisation or service to help them.


When the person has selected an option (including how things at work are going to be improved), it is good practice to explore how they are going to implement it.  “How will you / we put that solution in place? (actions, dates etc).  This enables both of you to think through the workability of the solution and identify any pitfalls.  Sometimes, at this stage the chosen option is discarded because it is too risky or the chances of success are small. You can guide them through their objectives and they can then check to ensure that their chosen course of action is going to help them reach their objective.  Push back on the ‘work’ solution until you are satisfied it meets your needs.

Encourage and follow-up

Give the person plenty of encouragement. “You have my support to work through your action plan – do you commit to delivery?”  To the extent that you can put their mind at ease about the work situation. Don’t compromise on the need for work impacts to be fixed but remove unrealistic fears they may have, such as the fear of losing their job. Make sure that you follow-up with the person to ensure progress.

Tips for a successful conversation

Be non-judgmental – everyone has personal problems. It’s not our job to judge how they live their lives. It IS your job to sort the problem out as it impacts the workplace we are responsible for.
  • Allow a little time. People have a lot to deal with and there are often big decisions to make.
  • Be firm that progress must be made. People often resist decisions and taking steps over personal problems. There’s a lot at stake.
  • With anger, frustration, sadness, depression and other emotions potentially involved, we need to be particularly careful to listen actively and build an accurate picture of what’s going on.
  • Be assertive
    • Your initial statement of the impact the problem is having on the workplace and on the individual needs to be firm, exact and accurate.
    • You must convey that you have a responsibility to solve the impact of their personal problem on the business – this does not make you unsympathetic to their problem it’s just “doing your job”.
    • You must be firm that they need to be finding options and solutions (EAP, counselling, asking for time off etc) and taking responsibility for getting themselves back on track.
    • You must be firm around deadlines for progress and evidence of progress. Procrastination is a real risk with these kinds of problems.[