Valérie Fernandez

By Valérie Fernandez

May 12, 2020


Dealing with emotionally sensitive employees? Strategies to intervene efficiently

Article revised on 15 June 2021

Breakup, bereavement, family problems, illness of a loved one, financial problems… Sooner or later, everyone goes through personal hardship. These problems are not usually related to work, but they will still affect the performance of employees who are confronted with them. How should you react? Is it better to simply ignore the situation and let time run its course so you don’t get involved in a team member’s personal life? As a manger, not only is it to your advantage to support fragile employees, but it’s your responsibility to do so. Tact and empathy are key.


Psychological distress is a common ailment

According to a study conducted by researchers at the École de relations industrielles de l’Université de Montréal (UdeM) and the Institut de recherche en santé publique de l’UdeM (IRSPUM), nearly 24% of workers in Quebec suffer from psychological distress. The same study revealed that 6% of workers suffer from depression, and 4% from burnout. Conclusion: Odds are some members of your team are going through difficult times which could have an impact on their work.


Recognizing the signs

To be able to intervene appropriately, you need to be able to recognize symptoms of psychological distress. Such employees rarely talk openly about their problems.  Most will simply attempt to go on with their daily tasks, for better or for worse. Without attempting to make a diagnosis, you should be watching out for various signs, especially to changes in behaviour.


  • Selfishness
  • Anxiety, aggression
  • Confusion
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Medication, alcohol or drug abuse
  • Fatigue


Behaviour at work

  • Tardiness and repeated absences from work
  • Failing memory
  • Lack of cooperation, difficulty working with colleagues
  • Lack of motivation
  • Reduced production or quality of work


Intervening in a delicate situation

Approaching employees who seem to be going through difficult times requires tact. To intervene successfully, it’s important to establish an atmosphere of trust by listening to the employees with empathy. The main trap to avoid? Drawing conclusions based solely on your perceptions.

Here are a few tips taken from an article by Gilles Savoie, Vice-President at Les Consultants Delorme-Lussier inc., posted on the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés (OCRHA) website.

  1. Test out your perceptions
    Plan a meeting with the employee to discuss your observations. You can bring up what you have observed that has led you to believe the employee is not doing well. Be empathetic and don’t hesitate to let the employee know you’re concerned. Also try to find out if the employee is getting the support he or she needs from friends and family.
  1. Offer help
    You can remind employees facing difficult times that your organization has measures in place to help them when necessary. For example, you can explore the possibilities of adapting their work schedule, temporarily working part-time, taking a vacation, etc. Some less official or more specific arrangements can also be considered.
  1. Provide guidance
    Encourage your employees to use an employee assistance program if this service is available in the company.  The CLSC, a support group, a clinic, a doctor or psychologist are also resources that could help employees find solutions.
  1. Make yourself available
    The employee may not be ready to confide in you from the start. Let him or her know that your door is always open.


Follow up

It’s important to tell your employees what your expectations are to allow them to take the necessary measures to deliver the work that is expected of them. Agree on a time to discuss progress and, if necessary, change your approach. You’ll be able to provide support based on how the situation has evolved.

Not sure you have the right approach? Don’t hesitate to run it by your colleagues or your organization’s human resources department. La Capitale’s VIVA program can also be helpful. See what the program has to offer you!

Want to encourage your employees to adopt healthy lifestyle habits?

Discover the VIVA workplace health and wellness program.

Visit our website

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