Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is co-owner of Waltz Animal Clinic in Madison, Indiana, and a former Charleston, South Carolina, practice manager. She has spent nearly her entire life in the industry, earning her keep in her parents’ clinic before advancing into the world of veterinary management. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and is a certified veterinary practice manager.Read Articles Written by Abby Suiter
Without a doubt, a team member struggling with a personal issue — marriage, financial, substance abuse or mental health, for example — can show a decline in productivity, attendance, energy and attitude while on the job. Personal rough patches are inevitable. But how can a practice manager support the team member, minimize any negative impacts on the hospital and guard herself from burning out in the process?
The most common way to assist a co-worker during a time of need is to utilize an employee assistance program (EAP), a service designed to give employees voluntary, free and confidential access to short-term counseling. The cost of such a service is fairly well-controlled. Small businesses can expect to pay about $50 per employee annually while rates for larger ones can drop to $36 a person or less.
Industry studies suggest that while often underutilized, EAPs regularly pay off by reducing the business costs incurred from employee stress.
Do Your Research
EAPs are not the magic solution to a team’s entire personal strife, but they are a solid place to start. Finding and paying a private therapeutic counselor or adviser is likely out of reach for many employees, but a well-positioned, free service could provide a much-needed stepping stone towards positive change.
From a management perspective, I was relieved to have the EAP option when faced with my first substance abuse HR crisis. Some situations are too delicate or dangerous to be handled by human resources personnel and are best left to trained counselors.
When looking for an EAP that fits your budget and expectations, ask your business insurance agent or local hospital for recommendations. Provider lists can be found through the Employee Assistance Professionals Association and the Society of Human Resource Management. Prepare questions about after-hours accessibility, the counselors’ education and experience, the frequency of referrals outside the EAP, and team and management training opportunities.
Over the years I have invited a handful of local professionals to address our team on topics such as financial planning, compassion fatigue, combating stress and personality-based communication. We once bartered veterinary services in exchange for a series of group sessions. In each case, the information and services provided were largely well-received and seemed to invigorate individuals to dive deeper into topics that resonated with them. Even if no action was taken, employees cited the presentations as why they thought management truly cared for them personally and professionally.
When planning your yearly calendar of monthly team meetings, consider swapping a few of the business-as-usual topics with a more robust, holistic offering. Poll the team to determine topics of interest and then find a professional willing to give a presentation and skip the hard sales pitch. For subjects that really strike a chord, explore more than a one-time seminar.
By and large, it’s not the practice manager’s place to become entwined in the daily drama of an employee’s personal problems unless the situation poses a direct on-the-job conflict. I politely listen to a co-worker’s unsolicited water cooler chatter and, when appropriate, will regale the team with anecdotes from my home life. I believe personal relationships build trust, perspective, teamwork and morale at the office, but I also know that as a manager I need to hold my teammates accountable for their actions and cannot allow friendships to undermine my role as their supervisor.
The manager’s responsibility is to step in when a team member’s performance starts to suffer. A show of compassion and support is critical but should fall short of providing counsel or an open-ended shoulder to cry on. A manager can maintain professionality by suggesting resources, allowing time off, adjusting responsibilities, monitoring the situation and creating a structure for success. An employee handbook that promotes fairness and consistency from one situation to the next is important. A well-defined leave-of-absence option can be useful in extreme circumstances.
Other team members can be asked to rally around their co-worker, while preserving confidentiality, by showing grace on particularly bad days or picking up extra work in the short term. The goal is to support one another through finite periods of crisis in the expectation that the same would be done in return for any co-worker.
Protecting Yourself, Your Team and Your Business
I have been the recipient of grace and team camaraderie and am grateful for the privilege. My experiences, however, have led me to err too far on the side of compassion to the extent that I was sometimes taken advantage of. More than once I allowed an employee’s repeated poor performance, linked to personal struggles, to degrade team morale and ultimately end in a dramatic exit. I implore you to learn from my mistakes.
When faced with an employee who is navigating an emotionally challenging life event, guard yourself with these tips:
- Set boundaries for unacceptable behavior and make those clear to the employee in crisis early and in writing.
- Listen to co-worker complaints regarding underperformance. Swiftly take action when appropriate and avoid adding to gossip or griping.
- Conduct a risk assessment. Consider whether any safety measures or audit processes need to be tightened during the period of instability.
- Do not hold yourself personally responsible for an employee’s happiness or success. The weight is not on your shoulders.
- Strive to use all feedback and situations constructively, but do not let an emotional employee’s rant diminish your self-confidence or self-worth.
While not all situations of personal crisis end in positive employment, investing in employee health and well-being is a worthy investment for your practice and team. A show of support from a work family can help retain a valuable employee and potentially make an impactful difference in the person’s life.
As a manager, I think leaving this type of legacy will be my greatest professional achievement.
Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.