As a public servant, and similar to every other industry, there is a lot of speculation about what post-Covid workplaces will look like. Many of our operations can be done well-enough from home, and the challenges we have now are mostly about IT infrastructure, home office solutions, and privacy. Much of our work is digital and email-enabled, so it’s not a giant leap to work from home. We just traditionally haven’t done that transition for all the usual pressures related to remote workers and supervision/monitoring, and some unique pressures related to privacy, taxpayer dollars, and supporting Ministers in person.
Paul Taylor over at Governing.com wrote an article about five changes he sees coming to the public service post-Covid. Here’s an excerpt:
Your Cubicle. Our Conference Room. Where Did They Go? Your space may get bigger as facilities staff reconfigure space to conform with the 6-foot separation requirements. Coupled with limits on group size, that is likely to grow cubicle row into what were once conference rooms. … Beyond the Point of No Return. Social distancing is bound to spread employees across more square footage than agencies have to reconfigure to handle everybody at work. What’s more, as governments confront the need for budget cuts in the tens and hundreds of millions, the public-sector layoffs announced to date are likely to rise exponentially as the tax base shrinks. … The Grey Beard Dilemma. The Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials have cautioned since the beginning of the crisis that “Older adults and people who have severe underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.” That may provide some employees an excuse to leave public service early — or be the catalyst for difficult conversations with their managers about a mutually agreeable plan of when and how to transition.
He has two other points about masks and gloves + surveillance and testing, and I think it is way too premature to be estimating what those measures look like. One estimate of putting 100 people per floor into a 20 floor office building (with only 2 people per elevator to maintain distancing and assuming normal start times and the usual number of elevators per building) had it taking almost 3-4h to get everyone just to their desks. Exits would take the same although maybe a bit faster if some people take the elevator.
However, I agree that there will be a lot of discussions about rejigging floor spaces and decreasing common areas. I also think there will be much greater emphasis on giving people camera-enabled computes with full band-width capabilities (the Canadian federal government has had lots of laptops and tablets with cameras, but very little infrastructure to support video-calls from your desktop), and if you are meeting through computers, why not continue to work from home?
I’m less sold on the ruminations about layoffs in mass modes — there will be debts to pay off, guaranteed, but there will also be huge government programs to implement. It’s way too soon to make those estimates.
But as an ageing worker with diabetes, I fully agree about the complications going back to the office. I have zero interest in risking my life just to work in a cubicle. If I can do my work from home, I’m happy to do so. And if they offered some sort of buyout/medical early retirement option? I suspect I would be crunching the numbers to see if I could make it work.
Great article, even if I don’t fully agree with all his points.
Because of my interest in helping people with HR processes, and learning techniques to be a better manager in general, I am frequently attracted to articles about mentoring. I’m also frequently disappointed with those columns that advocate a “one size fits all” closed approach to mentoring.
So colour me surprised when I saw an article on Pocket recently about questions that the best mentors ask, written by Gwen Moran (and originally shared on Fast Company). Some of them are pretty common-place in my view:
What does success look like to you?
What do you want to change? (usually as “where do you want to be in 3-5 years?”)
What options have you identified?
What are you reading? (not usually as a mentoring question, often more for interviewing)
But she also includes some more interesting open ones:
What does success look like to you? (a better phrasing than asking about their goals as it often leads to both visioning of ST and LT outcomes)
What are the obstacles you’re facing? (great starter)
What can you control? (now that’s getting a little harder-edged, I like it)
However, the one I like the best is asking what outcome the person wants, which is far more immediate than lofty goals. And often gets them out of “managing the situation” towards “managing the result”.
When you start with the specific outcome you want, the best action to take becomes clearer. For example, if you’re having a conflict with a team member, the best solution will be different if you want to try to repair the relationship versus if you think it’s hopeless and just want to get away from that person.
“If [the protégé] is facing a really complicated situation, that is often the best question you can ask to help them lift their head up and start to look at the situation from an entirely new angle”.
As part of an update to my website, I am revamping all my featured images (https://polywogg.ca/new-featured-images-astronomy/). Having already tackled a small one (astronomy) and a large one (website and computers), I am turning my attention to a different challenge — governance. I actually have multiple categories that fall into a “governance” theme, although in many ways, “government” might be a better term for some.
I have an actual category specifically called governance, and I tend to write about a variety of things related to running a government. Elections, public administration, audits. I have more of a technical bent to my topics, and if I was completely candid, it seems like public administration would be the more likely heading. Except from time to time I go above that and intersect with policy and politics. The running of a government at a level above. Not often, but occasionally, and usually related to how the two realms — politics and public administration — intersect. At one point, I wanted a new “image” to represent all that, and given the ethereal nature of the concepts, I made up a combined image representing different parts of a governance package — politics, legislation, judicial, and the people. It’s not a huge category for me, only 30 posts out of about 1400 deal with governance issues, but it may grow once I retire.
I also used to work at CIDA dealing with international development issues. I don’t write about it very often, only 27 posts in total, and 17 of those are about one specific book where I wrote about each chapter as I went. I do like to follow what’s happening in broad trends, though, since I spent 10 years of my career dealing with the files, yet even when I do write, I tend to have a “public administration” slant to my writing, rather than development in general. I didn’t have a great idea for my international development “image”, but managed to find one that was about food security, including both growing your own food and production of meals afterwards. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’ll do.
A third area I write about regularly is the “civil service” itself. And to be honest, I haven’t had a good image to reflect that area. It’s not a lot of posts, still only about 27, but I’ve tended to bop between one of two images. First, I’ve used the general governance image shown above, but that doesn’t really reflect what we do. I have also often used the bottom right-hand corner of that governance, the one of “people” to reflect the civil service (the fourth pillar of the governance stream). Which is fine. Except that I have also used that one a LOT for something else — my posts about HR in the government. In particular, when I’m writing items for my HR guide, I’ve tended to use that image as the theme. However, to be honest, I don’t really like it for my HR guide. I need a new one for that, so I can use it here now. And, as noted, there’s symmetry with the larger combined governance image.
Which leaves me with two very specific areas to deal with. One is a “one-off” conference that I helped organize way back in 2002. The reports and docs are on my site (13 pages), and I use the logo we had for the conference.
The other is my HR guide. I have struggled with this guide for a long time, in varying forms. Mostly I have used my large tree frog image to reflect my branding for it.
But a few years ago, before I ran into some publishing snags with the Conflict of Interest people, I went ahead and had the full cover page designed for the guide.
Okay, okay, it’s a little large for a featured image for a post. 🙂 So, I’ve played with cropping a bit, and I have this.
I ain’t gonna lie…I really like that one. Okay, good. Governance images are set!
I’ve been following the TBS announcements, as most government employees have been, trying to figure out if and when they will tell us simply to work from home across the board. Right now, managers are told to be as supportive as possible for people wanting to work from home. Yet we can’t even call it telework as most of them will have no “tele” options at all — many don’t have a connection or app to connect remotely, and for those who do, most networks don’t have the bandwidth or server power to handle EVERYONE logging in remotely.
On Reddit, one user started a thread and included the phrase:
Let’s be honest – in many cases we actually can work from home and should absolutely be doing so.
Thread | Reddit
I don’t know if they are a manager who has ever managed telework employees or are an employee who has ever worked from home more than a day or two, but the level of assumptions in that statement suggests to me that the answer is neither.
Most organizations, government or otherwise, are extremely “place-based” centres of work. Outside of coding, most companies and businesses require you to be onsite in order to sell stuff, deal with customers, serve food, work in a mine, drill for oil, etc. Most are not set up for e-delivery or even e-working. There are entire academic disciplines on this for the future of work and have been for over 40 years. The Utopian idea of “living in a remote cabin and working in a virtual office” hasn’t manifested itself yet.
Look at universities…almost all have cancelled classes and are “moving” things online. But that is a combination of videos and email. It isn’t true networking or e-delivery, it is “hey, no classes, but I’ll do some cheap-ass video and pretend it’s a lecture.” Universities have had the technology to move ALL of their stuff online for years, yet the vast majority is still delivered in person. Watch the tension this coming week as professors who can barely type suddenly have to offer online classes vs. some other professors who will do great and think, “Hmm, why am I bothering to have people come to class if I can do this?”.
Government work is no different. We don’t have the infrastructure, the bandwidth, skills or training to manage at a distance, even if / when the work could be delivered that way. People think alternative work arrangements, hoteling, etc are suddenly going to lead to a mass increase in distance working/teleworking, and I appreciate their efforts, but their assumptions that it will happen tomorrow is overly optimistic.
So let’s look at some simple classifications…the vast majority of AS or PM positions either support or process stuff. Can you do that from home? Not unless you have a connection.
The paperwork can’t get to you easily, we can’t scan everything, you need to be able to do stuff in online databases / financial systems, email tracking, etc. Most of it also contains info about either Canadians or other employees, and you can’t work on it at home without violating just about every privacy legislation code we have. We don’t have secure filing cabinets, secure connections, nada. So what are the AS group going to “administer” easily? The short answer is not much. They can take a few things home that will get them a couple of days down the road, but if they don’t have a connection, most of their work will grind to a halt. They are e-enabled for just about everything at work. And if you’re a PM at Service Canada, we need you at work to process all the new claims coming in so affected Canadians have some money, most of which have systems that are uber protected with all the SIN numbers of every Cdn in the country. Not going to open those systems up from home.
For the EC community, we can likely write memos, most of our work is unclassified, well, EXCEPT at this time of year when tons of it is related to budget secrecy. So what else can you do at home without your work connection? Research? Sure. For awhile. Meetings by phone or computer? Sure, but since many EC’s work is responsive to demands from above, some of that demand is going to diminish. Trends and analysis? Well, all your stats aren’t coming with you, since the data sets are likely too big to access at home. Audits and evaluations? Hard to submit your requests for docs to people who don’t have access to their docs. Corporate planning? Ground to a halt since the only priority is the virus.
But let’s back up, and simply ask ourselves what you need to work from home effectively in any government telework / work-from-home / work-at-a-distance situation:
A. First and foremost, you need a type of work that is amenable to being done remotely for a sustainable period (not just a day here or a day there). With creativity, I suspect you can get that up to 20% of the government’s work, the rest not so much. And that is even excluding the Service Canada folks delivering benefits to Canadians. If we REALLY get innovative, you might get that up to 40% over time, but even that I think is radically more aggressive than any MPs will be willing to agree to. People complain the manager won’t trust employees working from home; if you think the MANAGER is skeptical, wait until MPs hear from Canadians who already think government workers don’t do anything anyway.
B. Secondly, you need employees who are effective at working from home. Working from home does not mean tending your kids all day so you don’t have to pay daycare while being interrupted every 10 minutes to entertain them. And with schools and daycares currently closed, this will be the reality for many during the coming weeks. In addition, they need to be comfortable working in relative isolation without becoming demoralized, unfocused, distracted by the latest binge-watch option from Disney+. I’m not talking “lazy gits” who will milk the system, I am talking more like mild introverts to extreme extroverts going into Castaway isolation where you start talking to volleyballs because you’re all alone all day.
If you’re into the Insights Discovery lego block personality types, blues do better at adapting to working at home, while greens and yellows go crazy without regular meaningful contact, and reds adapt. There are ways to cope for each group, but generally, analytical introverts who generally hate people anyway like working from home, the rest have to adapt. There is a reason why a lot of “blue” writers working on their novels and movie scripts do so in coffee shops — they need some regular human contact.
Some parts are great — fewer interruptions, no commute, etc. But you also miss out on the informal info sharing. Oh, look, Jennifer just came back from a meeting with the boss and is sharing info as she passes by, which happens in the office, but if Jennifer goes to her desk, she doesn’t feel it is big enough to send an email. So if you’re not at your desk because you don’t have a desk there, you don’t know what happened until a formal meeting or update later.
C. We also need managers who are not only open-minded about telework and trusting of the employees to be producing, but ones who actually know how to manage at a distance. I’ve done this, and I’m generally considered a more personnel-friendly manager than most. Yet I will admit that it’s tough AF.
For example, oh, look, there’s a new tasking, it just came out, let’s rally three people to get on it, due in an hour, let’s get going. Oh, did I think to call the person who’s working at home? No, I rounded up the three people in front of me and threw us all in a room to work it out. Can I call them? Sure. Will I always think to? Nope. I should, don’t get me wrong, but it is a mental adjustment for managers to remember. Just like Jennifer in the previous scenario.
But it takes managerial discipline and practice…regular phone check-ins, heavy use of messaging apps, etc. And the recognition that while certain types of work are more amenable to doing face-to-face, you can try to find a way to restructure it so it can be done at a distance. Many managers give in to the default of giving longer-term research type projects to telework people because it is amenable to doing alone anywhere and the “hot files” to the people in the office.
D. Perhaps as a precondition of teleworking, we need the technical infrastructure that supports telework. Not just having a computer at home or even a remote connection, but fast bandwidth, a home printer, paying for people’s internet or a share of their internet, headsets, ergonomic setups, quick video conferencing at the touch of a button not ad hoc options through Zoom or Slack or WebEx or WhatsApp. Dedicated tools that run off your desktop for managers and teleworkers. If I can’t stop by your cubicle to give you the latest update, or I can’t include you in a quick brainstorming huddle by clicking a video conferencing button, you’re missing out. We think we’re being supportive when we do teleconferencing in meeting rooms…pffft. How about video conferencing from your desktop as the minimum?
E. For success to happen, you also need to form a team that works well in a hybrid world. If telework approvals are opaque, the questions come pretty fast. “Why is Johnny working from home? I’d like to work from home too!” Even when Johnny is a researcher doing a three-month slow project and the person asking is the administrative assistant who coordinates all the paper traffic in the office on quick turnarounds using the internal protected system. There are always going to be some jobs that are place-based, at least in the short-term (as I said, we could aggressively innovate processes that might help with that, but not on 2 days’ notice). But more than the internal issues, the team needs training and practice in working in a hybrid world too so they remember to call Johnny at home and include him in the discussion, him on things, ask him questions, include him in brainstorming. We have phones, we need to use them, even while we’re waiting for video conferencing to catch up.
But if we need:
“telework-able” types of work and processes
+ employees trained and effective at working at a distance
+ managers who know how to manage at a distance
+ infrastructure, not to “cope” with distance, but to embrace and support it
+ teams that are trained to work in hybrid environments,
we definitely don’t have that currently. And telling people to work from home will work for some workers for about two days and then they’ll have nothing to do other than CSPS or SABA training.
For those who have managed employees at a distance, it often works “best” when regardless of the other variable, the employee is self-motivated to work at a distance. Actively calling in, regular production of work, a clear demonstration of availability, creative solutions to work. Passive people who sit back and wait for the manager to send them something to do start to look like slackers who aren’t producing, and it is often reflected in their performance assessments when it comes to competencies like initiative and working with others.
I’ve seen a lot of people working at a distance for extended periods of time, and just about every time, I see their career take a hit. At most, they get “succeeded” in their rating. It is almost impossible to get approval for “succeeded+” or even higher if you are not visible to the management team on a regular basis. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for some people, but the culture is nowhere near ready to support/embrace telework. At best, we seem to be still at the “tolerate” stage. Everyone is working to get there, and maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I don’t see it “switching” in time for wild success in the next 2-3 weeks or longer. It will be a good eye-opener for a lot of people, just as it will be for universities.
Heck, we even had challenges for snow days — people who could log in or who could make it into work “having to work” while others stayed home and still got paid. Extend that over several weeks, and the dysfunction is going to grow even more.
Just my opinion, of course, as an “ok, (stick-in-the-mud) Boomer”.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that one of the latest pushes in all management circles — public, private, C-suites, academia — is to figure out how to improve workplaces so that they are supportive of good mental health. But part of that push is recognizing that we are not there yet, and even if we were, life happens outside of the workplace too, and eventually, even the most awesome place to work is going to deal with mental health issues with its employees.
Analysis without resolution
Earlier today, our branch held a half-day management discussion on mental health issues and included a desire for us all as managers to make a personal commitment to what we would “undertake” to improve our support on mental health issues. Some of them range from the obvious (don’t look at your phone while you’re talking to someone) while others are more complex (how to manage performance when there is an undiagnosed but suspected mental health issue on display). As I look at them, I start to feel like I’m doing a simple analysis without resolution. But these are the thoughts that tickle my brain.
One of our conversations was around the type of mental health issue. For example, something that is a one-off is often easier to respond to, as it is clear what the cause is, and even what some of the options are to help. At least insofar as you are helping as a manager with the “incident”/”episode”. By contrast, it is often more difficult when it is either not obvious what the issue is or where it is ongoing. So, a death in the family might prompt obvious responses for sympathy, leave, etc., while prolonged grief presents more challenges for the manager to know how to help, or even in some cases, whether to help at all.
But even the episodic can prove challenging. At one point in my career, one of our young staff was travelling for work here in Canada, and had an allergic reaction to something she ate, ending up in the hospital. To me, everything seemed stable, and she was an adult…the situation sucked, but I didn’t think we had any role to play other than staying in touch with her. For me, it was only marginally different than if she had gotten sick in Ottawa. Yet my director was going out of her way (in my view) to help her mother figure out how to get there to be with her, etc. Even looking into whether or not we could pay for the trip. By instinct, I would have done none of that. For me, it seemed like we were actively intervening in her life, in her business, and I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. Yet tragedy struck. The young woman had a seizure and died. Suddenly it didn’t seem like our involvement was enough.
To the extent I can separate out the tragedy from the work side of things, some of it still bothers me in the abstract. Does the age of the person factor into my role as a manager? Should I be more aggressive intervening for a younger employee than an older employee? Would I decide on my role on the basis of whether or not they were married? Surely if it is right to intervene for one employee, it can’t be their age or marital status that determines my role? And while this was a physical health issue, would it make a difference if it was a mental health one?
Way back when I was starting in government, I had a co-worker who was about the same age. She was bright, articulate, good interpersonal skills, a work friend and a good colleague. Her dwelling was struck by lightning while she was having a shower, and she was jolted. In short, it messed her up. What seemed at first like it was a simple physical recovery problem became evident that it was more than that, a combination of concussion-like symptoms mixed with paranoia. I noticed she seemed more pessimistic than normal, but that’s all I noticed. But her supervisor noticed the paranoia and called her parents who took her back home to help her heal. Would I have intervened enough to call her parents? Was it because she was single that our role as coworkers and friends changed? If she had been married, would our role have been simply to ask the spouse, perhaps, if they had noticed something?
I find myself often thinking about this role as manager in helping staff who are off on extended sick leave. In the Government of Canada, our benefits and rules basically give you up to 2 years of medical leave if needed, without pay. At the end of two years, you have to “resolve your leave situation”. This means one of four things:
Return to work, with a doctor signing off you’re not only okay to come back but with any accommodation issues that need to be addressed;
Retire, if you have enough years in to do so;
Medical retirement, which usually requires you to have a different amount of years of service plus a medical evaluation that says you are still unable to work currently with an indeterminate time remaining for recovery, if at all (i.e., in other words, you aren’t well enough to work and they have no timeline to suggest when you might be);
Now take, for example, an employee who is off for leave because of a head injury or mental health concerns. They can’t work because they can’t concentrate, maybe their judgement is impaired, they are dealing with health issues plus the extra emotional and psychological burden of doing so, and one of their key “grounding” networks and routines i.e. work and the workplace is no longer part of their life. Yet as a manager, at the first instance of being on sick leave, and again at 12m, 18m, and 23m, I have to write to the employee and say, “Hey, by the way, while you’re dealing with all of that, here are 20 pages of dense documents to read and then decide what you’re doing with your life”.
On multiple occasions, I have had employees that I was managing come to me and say, “What should I do?”. Except my role is both to manage them and represent the organization. If I lead them through the decision points, and they aren’t able to return to work, aren’t old enough/haven’t served enough to take regular retirement, and don’t qualify for medical retirement, then their last choice is to quit, yet I could be accused of trying to get rid of them by helping them figure that out.
This is why labour relations will quickly tell you not to do that, and instead point them to their union, the Employee Assistance Program, their family, etc., instead of helping directly. I can explain the options, tell them what they CAN do, but avoid any semblance where I am telling them what TO do. And yet, I am their manager. Part of that job is helping them understand their options, making informed decisions, whether that be training, applying for or accepting new jobs, etc. Yet in this situation, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in roles. Equally, referring them to the union or EAP isn’t exactly a slam dunk that they will get the help they need.
If that sounds too abstract, let me give you an example, which I will combine aspects from different experiences into a single case. Suppose you have an employee who is on extended sick leave. They come to you at one point, they have all their medical forms with them, and they’re trying to figure out which work forms plus which medical forms need to be submitted. Equally, you also know, because they told you, that a friend is going to take them on a vacation to get away from the stress at home, and they’re going to go down south for a week. And they want to know if that’s a problem for their leave benefits. So they’re asking you (a) which medical forms need to go with which work forms and so they’re sharing medical forms that you don’t need to see and probably shouldn’t and (b) asking if they should tell the insurance company they’re going down south or will that create an impression they’re not really sick. As a manager, you now have more information than you need to or should have; an employee is asking you to help them file for their sick benefits, which if you get wrong, will no doubt come back and bite you because the “manager told them to file it that way”; and, they’re asking you for ethical guidance on how to manage information with their insurance company, which would also bite you whether you tell them to tell or not tell the insurance company.
At times, it can feel like the movie War Games. The only way to win the game is not to play.
On top of that, I as a manager, have never had any training to help deal with someone in that situation. Sure, I reached out to Labour Relations for assistance and they walked me through what I needed to do, but there is a large gap between the formal guidance in the abstract and the specific management on the ground when the employee that you manage is sitting in front of you.
One thing that I do believe in quite strongly as a manager is my “duty” to you if you’re my employee. It starts when I’m interviewing or recruiting you, long before you’re hired, and it even continues past when you stop working for me. Our journey together starts before you report to me and it continues after you stop reporting to me. It starts with seeing if working for me is even the right fit for both of us, and it continues with helping you with career decisions after you leave, if desired.
Yet I struggle with knowing where the line is between my role as manager to you as an employee, and my role as manager to you as simply a human who needs help. Where the line between work relationship and almost personal relationship is blurred by issues of your personal health. At the very least, the premise of “First do no harm” has to guide all actions, but that is not enough. But I’m not sure it’s simply an empowerment model either.
After I go through all those little prickly threads, while still not knowing where my full duty or boundaries lie, it doesn’t change the fact that I still have to “act”. Oddly enough, I don’t find that decision particularly hard, as we frequently have to implement decision models with imperfect information. Canada Life has supported a simple guide for acting as manager, and I really liked a few aspects of it, partly as they articulated some of my thoughts far better than I had imagined. Their page is here: https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/managing-workplace-issues/supportive-performance-management
The first element to me as a manager is to LISTEN. To be open to hearing what they have to say. The link above has this captured as COMMUNICATE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT, which is a nice way of viewing it. But I feel there is a small piece missing. In order for that communication or discussion to happen, the employee has to be willing to open up and share their situation. Often, the focus in these management discussions is on the importance of de-stigmatizing the issue of mental health. “Let’s Talk”, “Break the Silence”, “Don’t Judge”, “Welcome Diversity”. All of which are great. But I find myself looking at the hesitancy and I am not convinced the stigma is the main reason that some remain silent.
I think most employees know enough about their diagnosis and their problems to find a way to explain it in a way they will be comfortable doing so. They know they have a problem. They may not know the words for it, or how to describe it exactly, but they know they are having a problem and they know their own symptoms. And if they are in the mindset that they should “be a man!” or just “suck it up, buttercup”, that’s them feeling like their problems should be manageable and they’re feeling weak if they ask for help. Stigma, sure. But to have a conversation, they have to overcome two other barriers.
If they can overcome their sense of stigma, the second element is that they have to be willing to have a difficult conversation. Yet nobody likes them, there’s a reason why people put them off in their personal or professional lives. It’s uncomfortable. There are courses on “how to have a difficult conversation.” There are marriage counsellors whose practice consists extensively in helping people do that. So they need to be able to not just break the silence but also break the ice. Doing that with someone “above” you at work, who has power over you, or at least with a power imbalance between you, is even more difficult. Some of that is just uncertainty…they don’t know what to expect. Even calling a support network like the EAP program is beyond some people. Because they don’t know what to expect, they won’t call.
A friend of mine was in that situation. She didn’t really know what they did, how it worked, etc., even though she had heard of it lots of times. She felt she wasn’t in crisis so it likely wasn’t appropriate, etc. Once I explained my experience calling them, and how it had worked, she was like, “Oh, that’s easy enough.” And she called. Would she have called otherwise? I don’t know. But there are not only tons of employees who don’t know, but there are also a large number of MANAGERS who don’t know either, and yet as a manager, they’re encouraged to refer people there for help. How can you effectively refer people if you don’t know what they’ll do to help?
Third, even if you accept that you can get past the stigma and are willing to have a difficult conversation, you still have to overcome the issue that you are about to have a conversation with someone at work about something that is extremely personal. There is nothing I can think of more personal than what is happening inside your body. Yet here you are about to discuss it all with your boss.
Let’s ignore mental health for a moment. Instead, let’s make it a bit simpler. Let’s say it is simply a genetic health issue, maybe a heart murmur. You have had it all your life, but it’s been “murmuring” more than usual of late, and your doctor recommends surgery. Yet you work a high-paced job and you have to go tell your boss that you have a heart condition that requires surgery. No stigma, it’s genetic not a lifestyle, not serious, not terminal, but suddenly you have to tell your boss that you have this genetic thing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just tell your boss the minimum they need to know, don’t overshare, all good. Except here’s the thing. If you don’t share details with the boss, they don’t know how to help you, or if they even need to do so. And their response is likely to be different if you tell them you’re having wisdom teeth out, treating hemorrhoids, or having heart surgery.
Yet let’s now make it that you’re dealing with grief over the loss of your parent. Most people would respond with sympathy and support, because of your obvious loss. But you’re really emotional, and you overshare that it’s more complicated than that because he sexually abused you as a kid. Holy Hannah, yes, that’s going to mess you up. And your boss probably doesn’t need to know that, but they do now, and they realize it’s not just bereavement grief. It may not even be grief at all. And their “role” in supporting you shifts from normal platitudes about a loss to realizing they have no clue how to help you. But they DO know you’re going through some stuff, and it’s not light crap either. So they are going to be more supportive when you come to them on a day’s notice and say you can’t cover some event you were supposed to cover. If your boss doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s harder for them to know how to react. They have no barometer to know how serious the storm is for you, and if you aren’t comfortable telling them, it’s hard for them to manage.
Let me move away from that emotionally charged world. When my son was born, my wife’s water partially broke at 26w. All our plans for a so-called normal birth went out the window, and we were in the world of “hang on, delay delivery until as long as possible”, which turned out to be 36w, 5d because my wife is a rockstar and kept him safe with bed rest. One difficult birth later, NICU for two weeks, lots of issues around feeding, etc. Short version? I didn’t work more than 3d straight for almost six months. Emergencies, appointments, something pulled me out of the office. I felt like the most unreliable employee ever, and I derive a lot of self-identity from being good at my job. But I told my boss what was going on and why. And he got it. It was understandable, easy to see, and thus easy to be as supportive as possible. If I hadn’t told him what was going on, he would have just seen me being completely unreliable for six months. Missing a lot of work on short notice. Leaving in the middle of the day for appointments. Having mood swings and being less tolerant of normal levels of BS in the office. Hard for him to be supportive if he doesn’t know what is going on. Hard for him to manage around too.
And every time I have shared my reasons with my bosses, and what is going on, how I’m trying to cope and still get work done, they have been awesome. They understand and can figure out how to help, or at least show they understand. Work still has to get done, but they get it.
So for me, the first commitment is to LISTEN, ENCOURAGE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS, and be WILLING TO SHARE MY OWN EXPERIENCES. So they know that I’m not some automaton.
Another key component that I sometimes struggle with articulating when dealing with employees, even if just about performance, is the difference between listening and validating. While I want to listen, I don’t want to necessarily reinforce their thinking about something if it doesn’t seem reasonable. I may not have a role in their interpretation in their personal life, but I do have a role when it comes to working.
I have listened to people vent, and I sometimes liken it to the difference between symptoms and diagnosis. For example, I have seen people witness a rather innocuous behaviour from their boss, misinterpret it, wrap it in some grand conspiracy theory with all the bells and whistles, and suddenly the boss must think they are the worst employee ever, not capable of anything. And what was the transgression? The director said good morning to someone else and not them as they passed by. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.
Often the “evidence” is warped to confirm a bias they already think is true, and yet while I listen, I often will say I agree with certain “evidentiary facts”, but not the interpretation of them, nor the conclusion as to motivation. I can validate that they are feeling a certain way, but I try not to validate their reasoning if I think it is “off”. The link above has this captured perfectly — “separate acknowledging from agreeing“. Exactly.
But for me, even after LISTENING and ACKNOWLEDGING, that just makes me good at interpersonal relations. I still have to do the next step which is MANAGE.
What do I have at my disposal to manage?
The go-to solution for most managers is often to offer/approve leave. To my mind, that’s a valuable tool, but it is not the only one in the toolbox. I also manage my relationship with the employee and those around them. Maybe it is as simple as checking in with them regularly to see how they’re doing; maybe it is just asking them how they would like me to check in with them (i.e., for employees on leave, the guidance from Labour Relations is to set up a protocol with the absent employee about how often and in what form they want to communicate with their boss to manage the leave situation).
I can also manage workloads, although sometimes it is the type of work more so than the level of work (some might want slower pace research projects, others might more task-oriented process items). Performance still has to be done, of course, but like with workloads, that could be about focusing on certain manageable precise outcomes that they feel they can address (perhaps quantitative over qualitative goals). For the work environment, it is often easier to try things like lower lights or quiet spaces, while work arrangements often look like flexible hours or working remotely.
In addition, I manage people and that includes, as I said above, before they start working for me until after they stop working for me, and how I manage them affects their mental health as much as other factors. Integrity, personal respect, communication styles, visioning, all are obvious elements. And finally, I can spend money on training, indirectly on the EAP services, or even a coach if it would help.
Lots of other things I can do besides simply approving leave.
For me, it isn’t really a unique challenge that requires unique tools. The tools are the same, and the job is the same, even if the combination of tools is different.
To me, I’m hired to manage, not to ignore things or just do what is easy. If one of my employees has a physical issue or a mental health issue or a technical issue, my job is still the same…to manage, to figure out how I can help, and to decide what is the proper role for me to do that.