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When Personal Problems Become Everyone's Problem

Q:  Dear Workplace Wonda, 

There is an employee who always seems to bring her personal problems to work.  If she is not talking about them, she is coming in late or calling in sick due to something happening at home.  I know it is none of my business, but it seems like she sucks the air out of our department with her personal problems.  Shouldn’t something be done about this? 

Signed, Personally Annoyed

A: Dear Personally Annoyed,

There is no denying that the struggles and challenges of employees' personal lives can trickle - or gush into the workplace.  Work is a place where we will spend one-third of our lives.  The place where we are expected to be happy, cooperative and professional at all times. 

It seems reasonable that personal problems occurring in the remaining two-thirds of our lives could spill into the workplace.  The key to preventing a tidal wave of drama from engulfing your office or department is consistency and compassion. 

I was recently told by “he who must not be named,” that I was responsible for putting the extra “o” in “too, ” as in I'm "too" much.  Why, thank you?   I like to think of myself as “spirited” or “passionate,” but, o.k.

This can also be said about those who share “too” much about their personal lives.  Or let his or her personal problems cause “too” much drama at work. 

You know the type.  They are always sprinting into the office 5 to 10 minutes late, hair wet, shirt untucked with an animated response as to why he or she is late.  “OMG, you won’t believe what happened!”    In fact, you usually can’t believe what happened and how it could possibly happen over and over again to one person. 

Some people have a difficult time compartmentalizing their lives; therefore, are unable to prevent personal problems from affecting their work performance.    

I’m going to make a confession.   When I was a teen, I wanted to get out of work so I could make-up with my boyfriend whom I broke up with for the hundredth time.   I told my supervisor my grandma died and I was “too” upset to go to work.  My supervisor, who apparently wasn’t born yesterday, asked me what my Grandma’s name was because she wanted to read her obituary. Thankfully, it wasn’t a complete fabrication.  In fact, my step-mother’s mom had passed away.  Sure, I never met her, nor did I have any biological connection to her whatsoever, but she was a Grandma… just not mine. 

I just realized I said “thankfully” when discussing the level of treachery I used to get out of work after the passing of my step-grandma?  OMG, perhaps I am responsible for the extra “o” in “too!” 
Like, I’m making this “too” much about me?

Back to your question. Yes, something should be done about an employee who is causing a tsunami of drama that threatens to drown the morale and performance of the entire office.  Is it your job to be therapist or warden?   No. 

It is the role of the supervisor to address personal issues that threaten to wash away the employee and everything else in its wake.  It should be handled consistently and with compassion. 

Life is hard and stress is real.  But the reality is, life is hard for most and there has to be a standard and consistent approach to handling personal problems that affect work performance and office morale.  Meaning, supervisors should treat each employee with the same expectations. 

Expectations of the office or department should be clearly defined, including expected behavior.  This way, everyone has the same message and understands in advance what the expectations are and what could happen if expectations are not met. 

When addressing an individual employee, supervisors should do it in private, giving specific examples of how his or her personal problems are affecting work performance and impacting other employees or the product or services offered. 

Divorce, death of a family member, health issues and more can hit anyone.  Showing sincere compassion and understanding shouldn’t undermine a supervisor’s expectations. 

Supervisors can offer a sympathetic ear, but should never offer advice.  The goal is to get a better understanding of the situation so the supervisor knows how to address it.  If needed, the supervisor can refer the employee to human resources or the employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to get support.  Another option would be to offer time off or an unpaid personal leave so that the employee can address his or her issues and come back to work focused and productive. 

Hopefully, the supervisor will only have to address this once, but if it continues, other disciplinary options might have to be considered.   Regardless of the outcome, the supervisor should document, document, document. 

Now what can YOU do?

Don’t let his or her problems become yours.  You do have control over how you react to someone else’s behavior.  Choose to concentrate on your work performance and set your own boundaries with your coworker when it comes to him or her sharing personal information.  You could say something like, “I’m so sorry Anne that you are going through that, but I have to get this project done.  You should consider talking to your supervisor or human resources.  They are better equipped to assist you.”   

If his or her personal problems are affecting a team effort, certainly inform your supervisor.  Sometimes, the supervisor is the last to know, particularly when it comes to specific personal issues.  If the supervisor doesn’t seem “in touch” with what is going on, share with them how the employee isn’t carrying his or her weight on the project.  Give the supervisor specific examples and ask if they could address it with the employee. 


Workplace Wonda

FYI, it was Mr. Workplace Wonda who said that I put the extra “o” in the word “too.”   He should get credit for his clever zinger that I will take as a compliment.  Thank you very much. 


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