An employer’s role in supporting family issues within the workplace

There are two ways of dealing with family issues of staff in the workplace.

Firstly, proactively in a way that benefits the staff member, their colleagues, and your team or secondly, it lands on your lap anyway and you run around firefighting. Quite simply, there is no option where you don’t deal with it, it is your responsibility as an employer. 

Boundary shifts

We like to create boundaries between work and home and indeed they are useful as having the ability to switch off from work while at home and indeed switch off from home while at work are helpful to us and allow other aspects of our personalities and skills to grow and develop.

Dealing with family issues in the workplace:

Family issues major cause of employee distress

Family breakdown poses hidden risk for HR

Only 36% have 'healthy work/family balance'

This is healthy for us and promotes wellbeing, but boundaries aren’t set in stone and can shift depending on circumstances.

During the pandemic the boundaries of physical location of work activity changed for us and for many are changing again as we come back to the office.

Boundary shifts are healthy and normal and too much rigidity over them can suggest a problem.

Additionally, compartmentalisation, which is often the psychological state people identify with most when holding unhealthy work-family boundaries is seen as a pathological state in psychology. Compartmentalisation is a useful short-term defence against overwhelm but long term does not help us. 


Key strategies that will promote positive engagement with staff around support for family-based issues are: 

  • Education - a core component of all modern psychological interventions is giving helpful information. Promote openness to support by sharing information on the types of issues that can bleed into work from home/family members such as loss, disability, mental health issues, addiction issues and domestic abuse.

  • Training - for leaders in particular in spotting performance issues that may be due to these family-based factors. Changes in performance at work, attitude, relationships to colleagues are well known by most leaders to be possibly linked to issues for the member of staff. Are the leaders asking the follow up questions about staff and their family? Are leaders worried they don’t have the right to ask? Training leaders in how to ask potentially sensitive questions about home life is crucial.

  • Culture shift - as with the development of openness around psychological distress encouraging the safe sharing of personal experience from peers and leaders in the organisation around the impact of family distress on work life 


Often work can be the place where your staff member who has family struggling can find respite from the family issues and they may often be carrying fear of losing that escape if they tell an employer they are struggling.

Which is why often it’s not about needing time off, which might be the initial impulse.

This is particularly true in the case of long-term issues such as severe mental health problems, dementia and addiction. As an employer it may be a case of looking at adaptations to work times and duties to allow the member of staff to carry on at work without moving towards overwhelm.

It also may be helpful to offer support for psychological distress management with your EAP service if you have one.  


Staff peer-to-peer forums

A core component of what works with recovery from the issues associated with dealing with long term, complex, and or chronic family problems lies in the reduction of the isolation that comes from it.

The issues your staff member may be facing in their home life may be embarrassing, involve issues that contain social stigma and just may also take up all their time and energy.

They may find themselves isolated and alone, reducing this and finding support through peers can be all that is needed. So, it’s useful to look at staff peer to peer forums similar to the ones you may already have for say LGBT+ staff for example. 

As with your staff suffering psychological distress due to depression or anxiety for example, being at work is often part of the cure and facilitating this will mostly mean improved performance and greater loyalty.

We need to improve our resilience through better social connection and if we can do this at work, we often find the resources within us to better manage the challenges our family life throws up.

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education.