Supporting employees with issues

Supporting employees with issues

What can small business owners do to support employees burdened with personal problems?

Finding and holding on to qualified staff that fit in with a company’s unique culture is not easy. So what happens if these trusted and valued staff members encounter personal problems that interfere with their work? What can small business owners do to support employees who are dealing with divorce, financial difficulties, illness or death of a family member and ensure that their operation continues running efficiently?

It’s natural to want to assist “trusted and valued staff” more than others. That, in itself seems obvious and is in fact easy, but I’d suggest a slightly different starting point. All staff should receive the best support available from their employers. Consistency breeds confidence. Companies don’t become known as “good employers” by only helping their performers but rather through their consistent management of all staff.

Starting the discussion

Employers should have a very real interest in the performance of their staff at work, but they are not skilled counsellors or psychologists. Managers usually try to help out by offering advice, drawing on their own experiences and unfortunately often end up in hot water. One approach is to focus on performance or the lack of it as the foundation of any discussion regarding personal problems. Employees react differently in stressful times – some focus on their work as the only stable pillar they can rely on, whilst others fall apart. It is important to appreciate that the work relationship at its most fundamental is one where an employee provides service for which an employer pays. If this is not happening there is a need to address the matter. Keeping to a systematic approach is very important since performance counselling is usually an area in which the employer feels most secure. This approach typically includes:

1. Meeting with the employee to discuss performance standards and gaps that have arisen.
2. Enquiring why these gaps have appeared – is this due to a lack of skill or knowledge – remember that an employee is not obliged to share with management any personal reasons for their performance.
3. Mutually determining remedies to get performance back on track e.g. work-related instruction, training or mentoring.
4. Setting dates for further review of performance.

Tackling the issues

So now let’s tackle the personal issues. Employees will share personal information in environments where they feel comfortable to do so. As a business owner, be aware that employees may share their personal problems in an attempt to abdicate responsibilities at work. Employers should ultimately want their employees to actively participate in solving their own problems. What an employer can do however is provide parameters in which the company is prepared to help.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.


Not only are there emotional issues and lawyers involved here, but also factors such as division of property and others, all wrapped up in anger, distrust and sadness.

The work discussion could revolve around areas where the employee is struggling to get things done. Which tasks must be handled by that person, if any and which can be given to a colleague for a defined period. Will it make sense for the employee to take time off to think about things, consult others or to seek professional advice? Define the amount of time to be taken so that both parties know where they stand. It is even more essential in tough times to hold the employee accountable – the company will support those who take their employment relationship seriously.

Financial difficulties:

All too often employers want to step in and help, or employees see employers as their first port of call for access to money. We usually come across employers with two different approaches to this. Some say they are not a bank and don’t give loans, while others grant loans on an ad hoc basis, depending on the facts of the case.

We’d suggest that the employer assist the employee in gaining advice from a reputable resource or debt counsellor or facilitate sessions where the employee can gain better financial appreciation of their personal circumstances. This may seem like a stand off approach, and it is. Employees may also approach management requesting a raise due to their financial circumstances. Remember that any review should be based on market norms, internal parity (how other staff in similar positions are paid), individual performance and what the company can afford, not on what employees need in order to service their debts.

Death of a family member:

The obvious first steps are covered in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act under family responsibility leave. If less than 10 staff members are employed, employment agreements may dictate that family responsibility leave will form part of the employee’s annual leave. Employees with at least four months service are entitled to three days paid leave in total, not per incident, during each cycle of 12 months of employment. This can be taken with the birth or illness of a child or in the event of the death of the employee’s spouse, life partner, parent, adoptive parents, grandparents, child, adopted child, grandchild or sibling.

Naturally the company can offer help beyond this requirement, which may include support (financially and/or with time off for), grief counselling, assistance with funeral arrangements, transport etc. Companies can also enhance their benefit offering by contributing to funeral policies for staff. Often companies can negotiate better rates for a company scheme than individuals can.

And now for probably the toughest issue an employer will have to face:

An ill, chronically ill or terminally ill staff member.

In some respects the law is quite limited in its requirements of employers – it sets out some basic ground rules, but thereafter, the answer is as long as a piece of string. Employers are left to their own devices or conscience as to how to help those who work for them.

Determine the facts relating to the employee’s sick leave record. How many days are still available? For employment up to six months, an employee is eligible for one day for every 26 days worked. Thereafter, they can take sick days on full pay equal to the number of days normally worked during a six-week period for a sick leave cycle period of 36 months (E.g. 30 days per three-year cycle for a five-day worker, 36 days for a six-day worker).

The Code of Good Practice on Dismissals, specifically relating to incapacity for ill-health or injury, reads: “If an employee is temporarily unable to work in these circumstances, the employer should investigate the extent of the incapacity or the injury. If the employee is likely to be absent for a time that is unreasonably long in the circumstances, the employer should investigate all the possible alternatives short of dismissal. When alternatives are considered, relevant factors might include the nature of the job, the period of absence, the seriousness of the illness or injury and the possibility of securing a temporary replacement for the ill or injured employee. In cases of permanent incapacity, the employer should ascertain the possibility of securing alternative employment, or adapting the duties or work circumstances of the employee to accommodate the employee’s disability.”

We come across managers who really struggle with drawing the line. This is made more complex where there are no financial support mechanisms in place. How does one look at an employee with a chronic disease and tell them that there is no money to assist them? This is why it is imperative that employers look at medical aid/hospital covers, disability, income protection or dread disease insurance cover amongst other offerings.

Beyond the financial issues, the employer can also consider to what extent the company can facilitate flexi-time (coming in late, leaving early, core hours), reduced hours with reduced pay, piecemeal work, project work with more lenient deadlines, working from home and support with equipment e.g. use of a computer at home, internet access etc.

In all instances where referral to an external counsellor is suggested, the company should define how many sessions they will be prepared to cover and encourage the employee to take ownership and carry the costs of their own process thereafter. Quite often one or two sessions is sufficient for employees to determine whether they are gaining value from the process and are willing to participate further. There are a number of companies that offer employee assistance programmes of some sort. You could also enquire about industrial social workers that operate in your area. Industrial nurses and NGO’s may also be able to put you in touch with these resources. Finally, take an interest and make time to find out how the employee is progressing. Importantly, also keep confidential the matters discussed.

YB Rob Rankin is a founder and co-owner of and has dealt with human resource issues for over 20 years in a multitude of industries. has been providing human resource services to clients since 2003 and prides itself on giving both specialist and generalist expertise to medium and small businesses in the Western Cape.