I'm not a therapist. The work of organizational psychology runs almost up to the edge of the discipline of therapy, but I'm not so much a fool to pretend I have clinical skills when I clearly don't. But that being said, most of us will find ourselves working with someone who is in a state of emotional crisis. I've had situations like this, both as an HR manager and a coach. They are all different, and they are all challenging.
In your work as a leader you'll find yourself in a situation when you're working with a person and what appears to be a simple communications issue starts to look more and more like a mental health problem.
You'll work with people who walk around wearing their pain on their sleeves, telling you in gory detail about the parent who abused them over sandwiches in the break room.
You'll also work with people who beneath their professional demeanor hide a lifetime's worth of blame, shame, or self-loathing.
Let's face it, we all have baggage. Some of us just carry it in more public place is all. It does create a leadership challenge. And so when you have someone in emotional crisis in the workplace, what do you do?
Some tips to keep you steady:
1) DON'T diagnose. You may think your employee is bi-polar or depressed, but you're not qualified to diagnose them. Even if you are qualified, as a boss it is not your role. Don't diagnose, and don't label.
2) DO talk to them about observable behavior. For example "John, I've noticed that some days you seem very lethargic and unhappy, and other days you are full of energy and practically bounce off the walls. It's hard to know how you'll react when I see you in the morning, which makes it harder to communicate with you. I'd like to see you being pleasant on a consistent basis. What's going on?"
3) DO call your HR/legal department for advice. For example, HR may want to notify them of their FMLA rights if they need time off. You may also need to educate yourself on Disability Rights in the workplace. This doesn't need to be a 'big deal' but do get your ducks in a row. Get educated.
4) DON'T let poor performance slide. If performance slows down, talk to the employee like you would anyother employee. If they cite a medical reason for the slowdown, connect up with HR to discuss options, such as a leave of absence. Yes, you will want to try and reasonably accommodate this person during a tough time. Yes, you will want to be supportive and flexible as much as you can. But this flexibility should not include a slide in work performance for more than a short period.
Tip: If you have an ill employee out on leave or unproductive while you work things out, take some pressure off. Get a temp. It may not be convenient to add temp staff, but it's certainly better than feeling pressure to fire someone who has cancer, right?
5) DO seek out supportive resources. Your organization may have an employee assistance program. Call around, and encourage your employee to use those resources. You can also encourage them to reach out to a family member, a church leader, or anyone else in their lives that can be an advocate for them.
6) DO keep your compassionate heart. Some managers feel that because they have to manage performance, they must "harden their hearts" against employees in crisis. This may seem to be an easy way out, but don't take it. You can remain compassionate while doing your job. This isn't always easy, but who said leadership is?
7) DON'T rescue. You can't be responsible for the emotional lives of others. We all have certain "hats" we wear, and as a leader you can't be therapist, mother, or best friend. Be supportive, offer resources, and keep your heart open. But as a manager you can't save people from themselves or their medical conditions. Setting that expectation for yourself can only lead to pain and failure.
As a leader, you'll find yourself juggling the sometimes competing interests of organizational productivity and the needs of employees in crisis. In these situations there is often no "one right answer" but these tips can help you on your way.
And remember: breathe! And take care of yourself too. If you're feeling stressed, find someone to lean on.