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How to keep personal problems from affecting performance

Each day when we arrive to work we bring our unique skills, motivation and attitude. We also bring our stories, our personality, our family history, our habits and our relationships. These very things make up the fabric of an organization and often become its recipe for success.

Unfortunately, these same elements can also detract from the organization’s potential as employees become beleaguered with personal problems such as conflict, divorce, drug, alcohol and food addiction, financial struggles, parenting issues, health concerns, anxiety and depression.

Managing overall behavioral and mental health performance disruptors effectively is key to health care cost containment, long-term retention of valuable employees and ultimately, the organization’s overall success.


Depression ranks among the top three workplace problems that employees present with at EAP, after family crisis and stress. However, there are far more employees suffering with mental health conditions that do not seek assistance. Employees that do seek care typically turn to their primary care physician, who is most times untrained to properly treat mental health issues. Depression and anxiety often manifest as chest pain and palpitations, shortness of breath, fatigue, chronic back pain, migraines and irritable bowel syndrome and when misdiagnosed, result in expensive and unnecessary trips to the emergency room, cardiologist, chiropractor, neurologist, etc.

Barriers to proper treatment are the social stigma surrounding mental health conditions and a lack of access to that treatment. Fear of judgment often prevents people from finding qualified resources as many are hesitant about asking their family, friend or neighbor for a referral. Without easy access to professional psychological assessment, many seek a pharmacological solution without the recommended psychotherapy and lifestyle changes that are required long-term success. Using the medical system ineffectively is costly both to the individual and the organization.

In the workplace, the most troublesome symptoms of depression show up primarily as impairments in thinking rather than a change in mood. The employee appears inattentive; his short-term memory seems to be impaired; he is forgetful and displays decreased concentration. Mood and behavioral aspects follow: irritability, angry outbursts, tearfulness, sluggishness, fatigue and absenteeism.

Unattended, these problems result in an inability to produce, failure to complete assignments, low morale and disruption to the team environment.

For the workplace, the challenge has become managing the following factors:

• Absenteeism of key employees and the resulting lost output, disrupted workflow, overtime pay for other employees, training costs and morale effects on other employees.
• The rising cost of short-term disability claims.
• Pharmacy plan costs (antidepressants often rank as the second or third most frequently written prescriptions).

What can employers do?

Promote a healthy work environment where employees feel empowered and motivated to seek help versus avoiding problems that later interfere with their work performance.

Organizations from the top down benefit from creating a workplace culture that supports effective management of work/life demands. Learning the needs of staff, providing flexible work schedules and incentivizing health risk assessments and programs are some of the steps towards promoting a healthy and productive culture.

Reduce the social stigma associated with seeking help for behavioral and mental health issues.

Schedule brown-bag sessions and health fairs that include mental health education and substance abuse awareness.

Invest in comprehensive employee assistance services that are proactive about boosting utilization and deliver effective professional assessment, counseling and qualified referrals.

A comprehensive employee assistance plan might include a behavioral health education plan, an administrative referral program, EAP counseling, disability management, 24/7 access, online assessments, work/life services and healthy lifestyle programs.

Train managers to feel confident about early recognition and referral of work performance issues.

When HR and management know “too much” about an employee’s personal problems, it frequently interferes with timely performance management. Managers increase their effectiveness when they can identify early warning signs of behavioral health issues and are empowered by the organization to address performance issues, while maintaining appropriate boundaries and staying within their role.

Organizations that are proactive about employee health and provide comprehensive services that tackle real life issues quickly realize a bottom-line benefits in the form of cost savings. A secondary, equally valuable return is increased employee morale and organizational loyalty, so important for a growing organization.

Aoifa O’Donnell is chief executive of National EAP Inc., a New York-based provider of employee assistance programs nationwide. This article first appeared in Long Island Business News, another Dolan Media publication.

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