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Life happens. Events occur every day – we rarely give a second thought to many of them. We seemingly go about our daily routines mechanically. We may even have disruptive events that can come about that create minimal impact on the disruption of our lifestyle. We fix a flat tire and make another stop to pick up the forgotten milk. This is life happening, and we can move through our day.

High-impact life events are a different story. They disrupt our daily routine and can stop us dead in our tracks, and affect us holistically: physically, emotionally, financially, and even socially. These events can be joyous occasions or tragic events. Even planning for such an event to occur can seem to be overwhelming and disruptive.

Twenty-first-century events have proven how workforce dynamics – the outside influence(s) or significant event(s) that significantly disrupt business continuity – affect an entire workforce personally. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is one such workforce dynamic that interrupted business operations across the globe. Other such dynamics include major shifts in the economy, changing business trends, natural disasters, riots, workplace violence, etc. While it is unclear how long a particular disruption will affect business operations, employers will all find themselves in various stages of responsiveness to meeting employee needs from financial, physical, emotional, and social wellness.

To manage these stressors, individuals can go in a few different directions. Healthy options, including support mechanisms such as family, counselors, and community services, are available. Unhealthy options become available for those who don’t have a support system in place. This is where drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behaviors become a solution.  According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), more than 70% of those abusing illicit drugs in America are employed; most have jobs as well. The most common drugs abused on the job are marijuana and cocaine.  Drug abuse and addiction cost American companies $81 billion every year.

Whatever the underlying cause of a high-impact life event for an employee, the consequences can have a ripple effect throughout the workplace.  The distractions of the event can cause good performance to deteriorate, absenteeism to occur, cooperation with team members to erode, and a once-focused employee becomes distracted, potentially creating safety hazards.

Supervisors and Human Resources traditionally have dealt with these issues through Performance Improvement Plans up to and including termination of employment. Today, employers are recognizing that their employees are their greatest asset. Employers recognize that if they can help provide a work-life balance, including holistic well-being strategies, they can more than stop the outflow of monetary and perceived turnover costs. It is found that healthy employees can lead to an employer’s health.

With new generations in the workforce, companies have a method to retain employees and attract new ones with a holistic well-being strategy.

Developing a holistic well-being strategy involves several steps, the most important being communication. When an employee is perceived as being in a period of high-impact life event(s), their behavior supports the conclusion. As supervisors, what we know is not always the actuality of what is happening, and we cannot assume that what we see is all that is there.

Supervisors need to be prepared for empathic communication to understand what is happening in the employee’s life. Consideration should be given to an employee assistance plan (EAP) in conjunction with Performance Improvement Plans to set an employee up for success in both recovery and performance behaviors.

The EAP should have a visible face to both the employee and the supervisor population, with a representative visiting the workplace. The EAP should conduct supervisor training throughout the year that includes (1) awareness of the EAP, (2) how to effectively communicate with employees, (3) making referrals, and (4) increasing employee awareness of the benefits and availability of the programs offered.

Training for supervisors should cover how to communicate with sensitivity and empathy to employees and yet still include the need to maintain the requirement for productive performance in the conversation.

An agenda for the employee meetings would include techniques for stress management, building successful teams, diversity in the workplace, and preventing harassment training. Well-designed EAPs offer financial wellness education, grief support, and substance abuse counseling. The EAP should become a familiar face to all.