REBA’s Inside Track: opening up what’s going on behind closed doors

The last year has given us all surprise insights into our colleagues’ and business partners’ lives – from the colour of their curtains to the names of their pets. But perhaps it’s also made us aware of what we don’t see, as well as what we do.

REBA’s Inside Track: opening up what’s going on behind closed doors

For the most part, that is likely to be as innocuous as a video conference call in a posh top, paired with out of sight jogging bottoms (not guilty, for the record), or a pile of household junk hidden beneath a strategically positioned rug in the background (possibly guilty).  

But for some, there are more serious hidden concerns. Domestic abuse, problem debt and relationship breakdown are just some of the circumstances that may be hidden deeper than usual from work colleagues during lockdowns. And, with so many colleagues still working from home full-time, there is little escape from that abuse and worry.

Calls to police and domestic abuse charities increased last year, and earlier this month Shadow Domestic Violence Minister Jess Phillips read out the names of women who have lost their lives this year to male violence. This year’s Debt Awareness Week, saw estimates that there are now 1.2 million people in severe problem debt – almost double the pre-lockdown number. 

In most organisations, the number of employees who are directly affected by acute circumstances such as domestic abuse and debt are relatively small – but for those individuals, getting emotional and practical support from employers is crucial, possibly even life-saving.

Line managers are a obvious first point of contact. But placing responsibility solely with a line manager puts intense pressure on an individual who may have no experience of the types of circumstances their colleague is facing, could be dealing with problems of their own, will inevitably bring their own biases and experiences to the table – and may just simply not know what to say. In the worst cases, employees may feel they’d rather suffer in silence than tell a potentially unsympathetic or unempathetic leader.

Although line managers remain an intrinsic part of the network of help for their team members, support has to be wider – it’s a culture, values and communication issue as well. Both formal and informal communities in the workplace (mostly online at the moment) can help – but only if the members of those networks know how to give practical as well as emotional support. That could be signposting third party helplines, explaining how to access EAP services (and what those might offer), and knowing how to get the most from other mental, social and financial wellbeing benefits. 

Even more importantly, it is about building a culture of organisational supportiveness as a whole – both in the workplace and in remote settings. As lockdown passes the one-year mark, and as flexible working becomes a more permanent fixture in employment practices, making sure that a culture of support is communicated and embedded into everyone’s working lives will become more important than ever. It is all too easy to hide in a remote setting – culture, communications and supportive benefits can go a long way towards making sure that doesn’t happen.

The author is Maggie Williams, content director at REBA.

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