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Deehan Cooper

Royal College of Nursing

HR Business Operations Manager

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Employee wellbeing: supporting personal issues at work


Tackling tough work issues is one thing, but what about when the problems are wrapped up in situations at home, in relationships, debt, or bereavement? When complicated personal issues are involved, managers can sometimes prefer to keep their distance and hope the issue goes away.
At the Royal College of Nursing, we have 850 staff who work for the greater good of the nursing community. We need to support our employees to ensure they can, in turn, maintain a high level of service and engagement with people dealing with their own issues – particularly in a turbulent sector dealing with waves of change and cost-savings.

A foundation of our wellbeing strategy has been an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), used by around 30-40% of our workforce to get help and support with any issue affecting them, and which gives us a sense of the kinds of challenges staff are dealing with. Our expert provider, Validium, alerted us to how half of those using the EAP were struggling to cope with an issue outside of work – and in particular, around relationships, legal difficulties and looking after older relatives.

The initiative that resulted is a useful example of how to get the most from your EAP provider, not just from a generic service but to target the service.

We knew that if someone went off sick to deal with a personal issue, it was often difficult for them to return until it had been resolved, which could take weeks or even months. We wanted to encourage managers to notice when someone was struggling to cope with an issue outside of work, so they could support them as flexibly as possible, to enable them to continue to work effectively and avoid the onset of sickness.

Supporting team members

As a basis for this new level of awareness, we invited Validium to create a workshop, ‘When Home Comes into Work’, to help managers think creatively about how best to support their team members. We wanted to bring back the human element, to make employees feel safe telling their manager what was actually going on, and feel comfortable sharing this, so we could work with them to prevent a problem at home from becoming a problem at work.

The workshops were delivered to groups of 12 managers at a time, across 10 different locations, to give them the opportunity to share their experiences of helping staff affected by issues outside of work and realise the benefits of supporting staff as early as possible, instead of waiting until a personal problem had a serious impact on their performance at work. Managers were shown how to spot the signs that someone was struggling to deal with a personal challenge – such as reduced eye contact, increased forgetfulness or erratic work patterns – and how to gently open up a conversation with the employee based on observations made at work.

The workshops also covered the importance of respecting the employee’s confidentiality and how and when to involve HR or the EAP. The focus was then on finding the balance between following HR procedures and thinking creatively to respond on a personal level – without attempting to become an 'amateur counsellor'.

As a result of the managers putting their new empathy skills into practice, there have already been a range of anecdotal successes of how a different level of awareness and approach has helped individuals and the organisation. For example, an employee going through a relationship breakdown felt able to tell their manager that they needed to nip home to post an important document, when they might otherwise have been tempted to feign illness to get home.

Another employee is now working very flexibly after their manager’s kindness enabled them to talk about supporting a relative with a critical illness. They didn’t want to take compassionate leave, because they reported finding working therapeutic, so their manager has arranged for them to work flexibly so that they can meet their caring responsibilities, while continuing to contribute to work in a meaningful way.

In terms of statistics, 87% of managers said the workshop taught them how to take an empathetic approach, and 88% of employees who contacted the Validium EAP said the practical and emotional support provided had stopped them taking sick leave.

Be proactive

Inevitably, not all EAP providers want to encourage greater use of the service, because of the cost implications of providing the response. So it's important to be proactive with your supplier to get the best from them:

  • Ask for promotional materials to publicise the availability and range of services, that help to show how an EAP isn't necessarily only for a crisis, but more everyday advice and support;
  • Run 'roadshows' with input from the supplier that also help publicise and demystify the EAP;
  • Make sure you get detailed reports from usage of the EAP to help inform policies and training to tackle the specific issues highlighted;
  • Don't settle for an off-the-shelf service, but discuss what services can be tailored to address the issues that really make a difference to the workplace. 

Usage rates of the EAP are around 40% here – which we know isn't a reflection of higher levels of problems, but a culture that sees advice and support at work as part of a supportive environment, which acknowledges that problems at home impact on work, and sometimes a bit of extra help can make a huge difference. 

Too often in organisations the issue of getting involved with employee's personal lives is ducked, keeping a clear line between home and work lives in the name of 'professionalism'. But it's only by facing up to the reality of the blurring between home and work lives, and offering a considered intervention, that organisations will work as effectively as possible. In our case, it's clear that employees feel more supported than ever, which has had a positive impact on our business, enabling us to increase membership during a time of austerity.

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Deehan Cooper

HR Business Operations Manager

Read more from Deehan Cooper