How to spot when an employee is struggling

COVID-19 has changed the way we work and for many the way we interact with our colleagues on a day to day basis. It also means a high degree of uncertainty, a lack of social interaction and for many the mergence professional and personal space. This combination will certainly increase stress levels and increases the risk of mental health issues with your staff.

Now more than ever, every SME owner need to be ultra aware of the mental health of their teams, whilst also looking after their own mental wellbeing. Very few business owners have formal training in this arena, which means the ability to intervene or even spot severe cases can be very hard.

We have put together this simple to follow guide to help assess and manage your team and employees during this difficult period

1. Regular check-ins

Remember that group emotions have a direct effect on group behaviour, especially with regards to cooperation and performance so keeping your team happy is an essential part of any business. Make sure to start the team meeting with a catch up and light hearted chat and not straight in to business. Checking-in increases self-awareness and bonds the teams as they will become less judgmental. Be aware that certain team members might struggle more in sharing, such as junior employees so try to manage the check-ins in a way that includes everyone.

We suggest a pragmatic approach for emotional checking-in that can work even in a virtual space such as a zoom calll. It is worth adding one or two explorative questions to give further insights into the emotional well-being of the team. For example: “What are the challenges you all consider as the most important today for you and the team?”

2. 1 on 1 catch-ups

Often employee dynamics mean that a few employees will often dominate zoom calls and meetings and thus it can be hard to assess all your staff on a team call. Having one on one catch ups is a great way to asses individuals but it does require high levels of sensitivity. Try and make then fairly informal but remember theobjective is to explore further for early signs of stress. Avoid directly asking “Are you stressed?” as this might trigger a denial or defensive behaviour. A better way to start these calls is be open about how stress is affecting you, establishing from the outset that the topic is not taboo. This shows your own vulnerability and will hopefully show your employees it is both normal and okay to be stressed and to discuss it.

Next we would suggest asking some open questions such as “How do you manage your current workload? What do you consider as the main challenges in the current situation?” These general questions can start a short discussion in which you can explore potential any indicators of stress.

For these one on one catch ups it is essential that both parties have audio and video enabled. That way, you can pick up on red flags in the employee’s body language and because they can see you opening up they are more like to.

When scanning for early warning signs, SME owners should use the following indications which can be hard especially as many of our interactions are over video calls at the moment.

  • Their appearance: Any sleep disturbance, dejected or defeated posture and bodily pain

  • Current performance: Any impairment of their performance, this can be due to time pressure and uncertainty and how it compares to their pre-lockdown performance

  • Passion:  Loss of a sense of purpose, direction and passion for the role or future generally

  • Irrational behaviour: Any uncontrolled outbursts and irritability that isn't normal behavouir for them

  • Personal and business relationships: Any deterioration of relationships and mentions of complete social isolation

3. Compassion

Many of your staff will already have a strong coping mechanism in place and hopefully will genuinely be okay and have adapted well to the current normal. Because of this they may be working hard and hitting performance goals so be careful not to favour them above others. Instead, these team members could may be used as a possible source of help for their stressed-out peers, either through relieving colleagues or talking to these team members as they may open up to peers more than with their boss.  

Following your 1 on 1 chats you should especially be concerned if you recognise some unhelpful coping mechanisms such as ignoring individual issues, inability to ask for and accept help and also if they tend to protect others at their own expense . We would suggest remaining in closer contact with these particular employees and encourage them to access resources for help without offending or concerning them.

Employees who have milder symptoms of stress can perhaps be sufficiently improved by the compassion and support you can provide. A lot of this stress may be due to the lack of security around their position and the future of their role and even the business as a whole so you maybe able to eliviate a lot of this stress. They are still at risk, however, especially if they are either unaware or unable to seek support.

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