John Kirwan was one of the most devastating wingers that New Zealand and world rugby had ever seen. A prominent and revered figure at the dawn of the professional age of rugby, he seemed to live a charmed life. But he did have personal problems at work.

Nobody knew that behind closed doors ‘JK’ was living a life of torment. Afflicted with depression for many years – including those as a high-profile sportsman – Kirwan only survived because he eventually reached out, seeking help from those closest to him. It was only when he began to talk about his problems that he was able to deal with them
John Kirwan had personal problems at work and was still a great rugby player
John Kirwan’s story is extreme because he was so famous, but there are thousands like him in the workplace: people who are depressed, and have everyday personal problems at work that they need to talk about. When staff do not share their concerns, these problems can become a major hindrance to effective team work. Often when people are distressed by their hidden personal problems they can ‘act out’, and express their emotions inappropriately, and potentially about unrelated issues. As a manager, having the skills to respond effectively to emotional outbursts by staff can make a huge difference to how a team performs in the workplace.
New managers find out very quickly how these things impact on their time and on the efficiency of their workers. A person might be promoted to a management position because of their technical competencies or years of experience in the job. It can take some time and many painful failures to learn the skills of handling people who have personal problems at work that can negatively affect the team and the work.
Personal problems at work can come from relationship difficulties
While family and personal problems in themselves do not fall under the Health and Safety at Work Act, being able to manage these emotions in the workplace can make a huge difference to the well-being and stress levels of your staff as well as to the efficiency and good running of the business.
There is a long list of potential problems that people bring from home that have an impact on their work.
Such things as:

  • Family or personal illness
  • Ageing or dying parents
  • Lack of sleep or other worries with a new baby
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Sick cat/dog/budgie
  • House maintenance or renovations
  • Upcoming holiday, marriage, birthday
  • Any number of other things.

Serious and ongoing difficulties that affect work are best left to Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) professionals. Staff usually only seek out EAP for concerns that are causing serious problems in their life. Nevertheless, you as a manager may still need to deal with people experiencing these major problems before they get to the stage of needing professional, external help. While you often can’t do much to fix their problem, you can do a lot to reduce the other person‘s stress by listening and acknowledging their emotions.
It’s not only the big issues that cause problems at work; the daily problems that people struggle with can take up time and emotional energy as well. Some individuals are more expressive than others, and like to talk extensively about their personal problems at work. Feelings can be contagious in that they affect those who listen to these problem stories. Some people have a propensity to ‘hook in’ to other people’s feelings. This takes them away from their work, which has a downstream effect of increasing stress and tension around the office. Small problems can soon turn into major dramas. Team members who have had training in listening skills and have learned to recognise and control their own emotional reactions, can become helpful colleagues for others in distress. When a whole work team has learned the skills for effective listening and managing other people’s personal problems at work, we know that stress levels reduce, conflict decreases and work efficiency improves.
Good listeners required to deal with personal problems at work
Not everyone needs to share their personal problems at work. They may have enough people in their lives who they can call on to help them deal with life’s challenges. Those who do bring their personal issues to work need to be heard, understood and acknowledged. Unacknowledged emotions for such people tend to ‘simmer’, and can negatively affect the work and culture of a workplace. Such people will keep saying and doing things until they get a response that shows that their experience is valid, and recognised.
The good news is that anyone can acknowledge the feelings of their colleagues – although when a manager listens and is empathic, that can have more significance for the person with the problem. The manager can also keep confidential what the distressed person has shared with them and so the rest of the team are less likely to be distracted from their work by having to deal with colleagues’ personal problems.
Business woman listens to man's personal problems at work
Talking about these problems can take time, often because the situations are complex and have intense feelings associated with them. Time can be wasted when the person repeats the same story over and over. Be alert to the possibility that this may be because they do not feel you have heard and understood them in the first place. Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist and neurosurgeon says that what people want is to “feel felt” at an emotional level. You may need to make a special effort to acknowledge the feelings underneath their story.
When you really do listen to and acknowledge people who are emotional you will reduce stress in the workplace, increase efficiency and build a strong, resilient group culture.
Effective training in emotional intelligence and interpersonal communication would go a long way to reduce the risk of any stress build-up, and increase the ability of work teams to achieve their goals.

Stress – the hidden workplace hazard

An eBook for busy managers who care about team welfare and productivity