Family issues major cause of employee distress

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Karen Matovu outlines three ways employers can support staff experiencing difficulties at home

When panelists at the Good Day at Work conference debated the extent to which happiness at work is determined in childhood, Professor Cary Cooper highlighted how very successful people have usually experienced a negative life event in early childhood that spurred them on.

Although that can be the case for some individuals, there’s another factor determined in childhood that is very much undermining people’s happiness at work: the state of their family relationships.

The extent to which this issue is undermining employee wellbeing and happiness became apparent when we recently analysed the main reasons prompting more than 10,000 employees to seek emotional counselling from the employee assistance programme (EAP) we provide for a wide range of employers.

In total, 28.6% of those people seeking emotional support were struggling with family arguments or relationship breakdowns. Making this an even bigger problem than mental health issues, which were the second-biggest cause of employees' concerns, affecting 27.9%.

The data highlights the extent to which employees want and crave healthy relationships but are struggling to achieve them. Causing many people to feel sad and distracted at work as they grapple with issues ranging from family estrangement to ongoing rows with siblings or in-laws.

With more employees facing distress due to the breakdown of personal relationships and family arguments than anything else, employers who care about boosting the emotional wellbeing of their workforce need to do more to support on this issue. But where should you start?

1. Prepare employees to cope

Educating employees about how the brain works under emotional stress can help them to feel more in control of their responses when family arguments occur. People can react to what’s being said or done by entering into a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, without giving themselves the opportunity to reflect for a few moments and allow their rational brain to come back online.

By teaching them how to anticipate exactly why their sibling always gets a rise out of them, or their mother-in-law always manages to control them, you can empower employees to decide how they wish to respond. This can help them to prevent arguments and reduce the resulting emotional distress.

2. Build their resilience

Our ability to take the heat out of situations and prevent ourselves from falling into an argument with someone is greatly defined by how we handle pressure. This is in turn influenced by our resilience (our ability to experience events without becoming personally damaged or distressed by them).

By offering workers resilience training to help them stay healthy under pressure, be their own best friend and exercise self-compassion, you can not only reduce stress levels at work but also help them to better deal with challenging situations outside of work, including challenging family relationships.

3. Offer confidential support

Even when an employee has learned to manage their emotions and set boundaries family relationships can still sadly implode.

Despite the prevalence of the problem it remains a taboo topic, with many people reluctant to admit when they’re dealing with family issues let alone when they’ve become estranged. Many people might feel too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they’ve fallen out with family, opting instead to lie about how they’re spending holidays and forcing themselves to carry the burden alone.

Given the prevalence of family breakdown it’s inevitable that your organisation has several employees who are struggling to cope with family issues, or who have become estranged from family members. So make sure everyone is made aware of any confidential support services they can turn to, be this someone in HR, the EAP or a charity helpline.

Karen Matovu is head of mental health training at Validium

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