Milestones or millstones? Dealing with life’s big events

All workers, male or female, young or old, will have faced one of life’s ‘milestones’ – major events that impact on their lives. These milestones can be positive experiences – such as getting married – or negative ones, such as redundancy. With nearly half of respondents to a recent survey saying they wanted more support at work, Mike Berry looks at how employers can help staff through life’s ups and downs.

Recent research by employee health consultancy PPC reveals that miscarriage, death, illness and infertility top the list of life’s hardest events, with these affecting both people’s personal and work lives.

Six of the top 10 reactions that people have during these times relate to the workplace, including taking time off, reduced productivity and making mistakes.

More than 90% of the 1,000 respondents to the survey said their work is affected during such times, and admit their performance is reduced by an average of nearly 20%.

The research finds that people are unproductive for an average of an hour and a quarter each day – nearly one whole day a week – as a result of trying to cope with these events. More than a fifth work at under half of their normal productivity during these times.

The study concluded that this reduced staff productivity is costing UK businesses around £15bn a year.

So what can employers do to mitigate this loss of productivity and help staff during these difficult times?

Nearly half of respondents felt that if they had been more supported during these events, they could have been more positive experiences.

Eighty-four per cent of people believe employers should provide some form of support and advice, such as access to occupational health (OH), private healthcare or an employee assistance programme (EAP).

While private healthcare and OH support are more established employee benefits, EAPs are a relatively new form of support.

The latest absence survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that three-quarters of employers are taking proactive action in managing absence and lost productivity. Of those, 50% use an EAP or some form of employee counselling service.

Its 2005 reward management survey also revealed that EAPs were one of the top three benefits that employers were planning to introduce or expand.

Figures from the EAP Association show that there are more than 1,000 organisations in the UK that have an EAP, covering about 2.26 million employees.

Ben Willmott, CIPD employee relations adviser, says employers were beginning to recognise the importance of such programmes.

“Stress is at the root of many of these [milestone] issues, and employers are introducing a raft of initiatives to manage the problem,” he says.

Simon Morgan, head of HR at vocational awards body City and Guilds, implemented an assistance programme three years ago to support 700 employees in the UK.

“Staff realise it’s a benefit that offers general advice and not simply stress counselling,” he says.

Property and legal advice top the list of enquiries, with employment issues accounting for around a fifth of calls, Morgan says.

Pam Davies, senior HR policy adviser at charity Save the Children, says its EAP reduces the impact that difficult times can have on staff at home and at work.

However, Willmott warns that EAPs should not be seen as a panacea to stress and managing staff workloads.

“Employers have to be there to help people through their problems. There is a danger that EAPs can sometimes be seen as the only answer,” he says.

These programmes should be part of an overall holistic programme of managing employee well-being, Willmott says.

Caril Tisone, chief executive of health consultancy PPC, says it was time for employers to bite the bullet and take a more proactive approach to staff well-being.

“The message is clear: if you support staff through life’s challenges, they’ll be more productive, absent less often and pose less of a risk in the workplace,” he says.

What employers can do for staff

  • Provide proactive employee support

  • Promote an active stress management policy

  • Ensure that managers receive training, guidance and support in dealing with sensitive issues

  • Provide ‘breathing spaces’ for staff to communicate informally

  • Encourage and support staff to make healthy choices

  • Clearly state and disseminate your policy on leave and other benefits

  • Cultivate a healthy working environment with clear policies and well-informed management

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