If you’re a boss, chances are you’re going to have an employee who runs into a tough life circumstance. I don’t mean the big dangers like addiction or illegal behavior, but the simple life changes that happen to everyone: a miscarriage, a death in the family, a terminal illness. These circumstances aren’t a reflection of an employee’s character or ability to work, but they do prevent your employee from effectively getting the job done.

As an employer, what do you do? You don’t want to be the boss who fires a high-performing member of the team after a cancer diagnosis, but you also don’t want a single life stressor to prevent a formerly-functional employee from contributing to the company.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Know the Law

The Family and Medical Leave Act states that employers have to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to employees needing to care for themselves or other members of their family, and that employers must also keep the employees’ jobs available after the employee returns to work. FMLA, as it is called, contains a number of provisions for sick leave, paid time off, overtime, and other concerns, so familiarize yourself with its intricacies in order to prepare your company in case of a qualifying employee.

However, there are numerous other laws designed to protect employees and employers both, as staff navigate the ups and downs of a typical life. For example: many types of cancer qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and employees with cancer are given the same protections and accommodations as other individuals with disabilities.

In short: before you have “the talk” with a struggling employee, brush up on the law. Make sure you know what your employee is entitled to, and provide accommodations accordingly.

Provide Support

If your company does not already have an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, consider adding one to your list of benefits. Often, health insurance programs come with their own EAP hotline or employee resources. EAP programs provide general support and counseling to employees suffering from grief, depression or other mental issues, and have the ability to refer employees to more specialized support services as necessary.

Providing mental support as a company benefit is one of the best ways to help an employee going through tough circumstances. Funeral director Kevin Bean emphasizes the importance of support and counseling during times of loss and stress, stating that many grieving individuals simply want someone to be present as they talk through their emotions.

Whether your employees are struggling with infertility, managing the care of ailing parents, grieving a death, or working through depression, providing an EAP and a method of seeking mental support is one of the best ways to help your staff. Your team knows that you care about them, and EAP programs increase staff loyalty and improve performance even during the tough times.


Resentments and misunderstandings build when you and your staff do not communicate. If you have an employee whose personal circumstances are causing significant performance issues, it’s time to start talking. It may be that your employee needs a small adjustment or accommodation, such as an extended lunch break to manage the nausea that comes after a new medication. It may also be that accommodations aren’t working, and that your employee needs you to address performance issues person to person, and talk about either improving performance or developing an exit strategy.

This is one of the hardest parts of being a manager, but it is also one of the most important. Employees need to know that you’re on their side, whether you’re negotiating options or providing a dignified exit path. Employees also need to know that they can talk to you about reasonable accommodations, such as a specific time they can leave work every evening to care for an ailing parent or pick up an infant at daycare. Without communication, everyone feels misunderstood. As a manager, it’s your job to both initiate and navigate the communication process.

How have you managed employees going through tough life circumstances? When do you provide accommodations, when do you wait it out, and when do you suggest termination? This type of communication and decision-making is one of the hardest parts of being a manager – so let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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