Advice from Spill's therapists
Offer workplace adjustmentsCheck in but respect their boundariesTips for managersRelated resources
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Supporting an employee through family illness

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees struggling with grief.

One of my reports is struggling at the moment due to family illness. Do you have any tips for how I can support them throughout this time? I want to be supportive but I definitely don't want to be intrusive.

Our first therapist suggests...

Offer workplace adjustments

Take your lead from your team member. There is nothing intrusive about asking after his emotional wellbeing, quite the contrary.

You can ask about how the family illness is affecting him without requiring him to reveal more than he might feel comfortable with.

“I know you’re dealing with a lot away from work at the moment and I want to know if there is anything I or the business can do to support you?”

That creates a space into which he can decide how far he wants to step.

In your catch ups make a clear space for asking about him emotionally distinct from a discussion about the work. It doesn't matter whether you start or end with it but try not to mix the two together because that boundary between his work and his challenges outside of work is probably quite helpful. When we are struggling it can be useful to have somewhere that life still continues relatively normally.

Make sure you keep a healthy boundary too. This means avoiding getting too drawn into conversations about what’s going on with his family member because you are not equipped to operate there. If you’re getting the sense that he really needs to talk about how he is feeling signpost him to a professional that is trained to do that work, i.e. Spill.

In practical terms think  about whether any changes, albeit temporary, to his working environment might be helpful such as flexible hours, more remote working, temporary reassignment of responsibilities. If you think something might help, you may need to suggest it as he may be reticent to tell you what he needs or just not thinking clearly enough about what might be useful for him because of his family situation.

Most of all, stay connected to him and make it clear that he can always come to you if there something he needs that he thinks  you can help with.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Check in but respect their boundaries

It sounds like you’re a compassionate manager who is aware of other people’s boundaries. If you’re having regular catch-ups then the time is already in place to have an opportunity to see how they’re doing. If you’re not sure what they need, then just ask. Check out with them what’s OK/not OK - e.g. “I know there’s a lot going on for you at the moment so I wondered what you need from me at this time?”. They may want more from you or they may actually choose less. We all move through distress in different ways so it’s important to check out someone’s needs rather than assume them.

You could, for example, ask  “shall we build in more check-ins or would you rather keep it as it is?”. They may even ask for less. Whatever they request, we honour it. Some people are very private or compartmentalised so won’t want to discuss personal matters in work; others will find it a comfort that there is someone to chat to.

With regards to how much you enquire about, have a think about your own boundaries and how much you can handle hearing. You may yourself be full of emotion right now so a deep conversation may not be possible for you, but if you have capacity to hold space for this person then that is a lovely thing to offer. If you are happy to listen then offer this space - “I am very happy to listen and chat about what you are going through at the moment. Are you happy for me to ask about it or would you rather I didn’t?”.

This is obviously written in my words but I’m sure you can adapt this more to your own natural  communication style. In a nutshell, just ask them what they need. Check in on your boundaries and then check out and respect theirs.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips for managers

You can support your colleague by:

  • Asking them how they and their family members are doing in catch-ups. You could ask them if they want you to check-in with them how things are going each time you meet or if they prefer that they only bring it up themselves but I would start out at least by mentioning it. If your colleague wants to take ownership for introducing the topic of course this should not prevent you from raising the topic if you need to express concern about them at any point.
  • Don’t feel like you need to fix anything for your colleague if they start talking about their feelings or the family member. Listening and acknowledging that the situation is difficult is likely to be enough although if they are clearly really struggling you may need to help them to think about their workload or other options for support.
  • If your colleague seems like they don’t have many support lines and you are concerned about their wellbeing you could mention accessing Spill to them. Because there can be stigma about accessing therapy, aim to normalise seeking it. You might refer to your own experience of therapy if relevant. If the colleague is not open to therapy, help them to explore other options to help them cope. It might help to ask if anything makes them feel better or is there anything that makes them feel worse that they wish to stop doing.
  • Be aware of other company resources or information that may benefit your colleague. This might be resources or information on mental health, physical health or social connection.
  • Avoid making assumptions about what your colleague needs or what is going on for them. Let them tell you.
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