Feeling bad at work: how to spot and help employees who are unwell

"I like companies, but I have observed major downfalls inside most companies. Endless processes, pointless meetings, tiring powerpoint presentations, infantilizing games during seminars... It's not effective for companies" explained economist Nicolas Bouzou during the release of his book The (In)-humane Comedy (2018) co-written with philosopher Julia de Funes. The book denounces a number of “aberrations of corporate life” in the opinion of the authors (creation of the “chief happiness officer” role, fussball games and excessive team building), “while, basically, what employees need is having a clear direction, meaning and autonomy. Our message at the end of the book is: “companies, let your employees work”.

Whether we agree with this observation or not, one thing is certain: the world of work is experiencing a crisis of meaning. In November 2020, according to the Opinionway Institute, one in two employees would be in a situation of psychological distress. We are therefore talking more about mental suffering than physical hardship. “Burn-out”, “bore-out”, “brown-out”… all these neologisms bear witness to a new malaise that today's managers must be able to identify: whether your employees are bored or exhausted at work has indeed all its importance in the daily life of a team.

So how do you recognize an employee who is doing badly? How can a manager help him and anticipate his distress?

Recognize distress and identify its causes

The first thing to do as a manager is to spot the signs of unhappiness. For this, we can never repeat it enough: empathy -which is among the top 10 most sought-after soft-skills-, active listening and open-mindedness are essential qualities to cultivate as a manager. How to spot a loss of motivation if we have little or no communication with our team? How to identify a drop in morale if we only half listen to the answers of our interlocutors? If we never ask "How are you?" before a meeting? By adopting this posture of actively listening and observing a person at work, we can more easily spot a change in behavior or a disengagement, which are often the first signs of growing unhappiness.

Graph: One in two employees would be in a psychological distress - Popwork

Then, disengagement can manifest itself in many ways:

  • Frequent mistakes, loss of efficiency
  • Delays, slowdowns in tasks
  • Absenteeism
  • Fatigue, lack of energy and general exhaustion
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Skin-deep and unusual emotions: anger or frequent crying, a certain irritability, unjustified aggressiveness... Adrien Chignard, occupational psychologist, founder of the consulting and support firm Sens et Cohérence advises managers to “Keep in mind three simple landmarks, the three “i”: instability, irritability, isolation”.
  • Withdrawal from work
  • Feelings of negativity or cynicism related to work
  • A lack of discernment
  • A change in behavior: a shy person who becomes irreverent, a happy-go-lucky person who withdraws, a calm person who gets angry...
  • And other physical symptoms: tachycardia, tremors, sweating, lump in the stomach...

Once the observations have been made, managers can start by asking employees close to the person in distress. The right thing to do is then to go see the employee to share these observations. Planning an interview with this team member will allow you to get to the bottom of the issue. But be careful to engage in dialogue in the most benevolent way possible, to respect the employee and his privacy. To do this, try to be as objective as possible and avoid questioning. The right attitude is not to trivialize the discomfort or to dramatize it, your interlocutor should not feel this conversation as an additional aggression. Weigh your words, share your observations and your concerns without making them feel guilty. Talk, listen, reassure them. “For a month now, we haven’t seen you at team lunches…”; "I noticed that …" …

The idea is then to understand the causes and find solutions to change the situations that lead to this suffering. According to the latest Cegos barometer, 59% of employees say they experience regular stress at work. The main reasons? Too much work for 45% of them, poor organization (for 31%) and lack of support (for 27%). But the origin of the malaise is not necessarily easy to find.

3 main reasons of feeling bad at work chart - Popwork

Therefore, try, together, as the discussion progresses, to understand the reasons. Is it stress related to overwork? Or is it more related to relationship problems, or the desire to change professional activity? Here are some leads:

  • Work overload: overwork, overambitious goals, too much work, too long days
  • Repeated failures
  • Boredom
  • Problems in personal life
  • Poor quality of relations with superiors: stress, conflicts, harassment, etc.
  • Lack of support
  • Pressure exerted by the manager, but also by colleagues, customers, suppliers...
  • Internal disorganization that complicates processes, incessant changes within the company, imposed by digital transformation, teleworking, the health crisis...
  • Loss of meaning at work: there are more and more intermediate professions that no longer see the purpose of what they do. The causes? Too many processes and not enough concrete actions. In his book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, American anarchist, anthropologist and professor at the London School of Economics, denounces these “bullshit jobs”, at the origin of the crisis of meaning of white-collar workers. According to him, a bullshit job is “a job so useless, absurd, even harmful, that even the employee cannot justify its existence, although the 'contract' with his employer obliges him to claim that there is a purpose to his work. Those who work in these bullshit jobs are often shrouded in honor and prestige; they are respected, well paid (…). Yet they are secretly aware that they have accomplished nothing.” This subject is also addressed by the journalist Jean-Laurent Cassely in his book entitled The best students’ revolt: bullshit jobs, the quest for meaning and urban reconversions. He explains the choices made by these young workers who flee business districts to return to more relational or manual professions where they can see the concrete result of what they undertake.
  • A strong feeling of loss of control due to the absence of participation in the making of decisions that affect them

Depending on the cause, try to understand what could benefit the employee in need. A real break, days off? A new assignment? Coaching sessions? Above all, if you feel that the employee does not want to talk about it, if you do not feel comfortable talking about it with him, or if you see that the discomfort is deep, call the occupational doctor or in the human resources department. Do not hesitate to alert competent people.

The role of managers: posture and support

Quality of life at work in their teams is part of managers’ core mission. They are also criminally responsible for it: according to article L 4121-2 of the labor code, they must be “responsive in the event of obvious ill-being, avoid and anticipate risky situations”. When a disengagement happens, the important thing is to show the employee that his difficulties are understood and that the team is trying to remedy them.

Pie chart : 87% of managers think they are poorly supported by the company to deal with burnouts in their team - Popwork

In France, 87% of managers believe that they are poorly supported by the company to deal with the burnout of a member of their team (Cadremploi study “Le burn-out”, published on June 17, 2019). So how, as a manager, can you try to anticipate the unhappiness of someone on your team?

  • By actively listening. In reality, very few people are naturally and truly capable of listening. And globally, we remember less than half of what we are told. On a daily basis, during a 1:1 meeting, managers must therefore "force" themselves to be silent, not to interrupt the floor and to focus 100% on the speech of their interlocutor, to grasp every detail of the message. , whether verbal or non-verbal. One of the keys to active listening is reformulation, i.e. repeating in our own words what has been said, to verify and validate the message.

  • By adopting a coaching posture. Modern managers, who are part of the liberated company, regularly take the pulse of their teams and no longer manage by authority. They have confidence in their collaborators and wish to develop their autonomy. It is a priori a more direct management, which gives a feeling of action to the employees, who are by definition less monitored and more challenged in relation to the objectives set.

  • By being kind. Being benevolent does not mean living in a world of care bears or maintaining a friendly relationship with each of your employees. According to Julia de Funès, philosopher and lecturer specializing in the business world, benevolence in business requires courage, clarity and a sense of confrontation. It does not necessarily involve the creation of “chief happiness officers”, responsible for ensuring the fulfillment of employees. For her, benevolent managers breathe humanity into professional relationships while intelligently challenging their troops.

  • By questioning their way of managing. Take a step back, regularly, to avoid possible management mistakes, toxic management or micromanagement. You have to take care to take into account the real workload, delegate without completely letting go of the reins, take the time to recognize the work provided through regular and constructive feedback...

Companies increasingly tend to find solutions to lighten the mental load of employees. The complementary health insurance Alan, for example, encourages its employees to turn all their notifications off to avoid being disturbed too regularly. To exchange, discussion chains are voluntarily opened on an online tool and everyone responds when they want, when they are 100% available. At Danone, every Friday afternoon is “liberated”. Rule ? No calls, no meetings scheduled, no emails sent, so that everyone can complete their work before leaving for the weekend.

These initiatives aim to avoid a stressful atmosphere. To avoid any long-term discomfort, Françoise Papacatzis, head of psychosocial risk prevention at DuPont de Nemours France, suggests that managers always keep in mind the five identity needs of an individual:

👉 existence (through exchanges, consideration);

👉 integration (I belong to a team, a company);

👉 individuation (my work is unique);

👉 valorization (I do something useful) and

👉 territory (I have a clear role).

The opportunity to check if these 5 needs are met by your employees at the next 1:1 meeting you will have prepared efficiently thanks to Popwork 😉!