How to Help Employees Get Through Personal Crises
Learn some of the ways that industry leaders have supported struggling staff members while maintaining a functioning business.
One Saturday afternoon, Bill Sonnemaker, MS, 2007 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, watched a newly hired personal trainer lead a group of new members on a tour of Atlanta-based Catalyst Fitness. Sonnemaker—the facility’s owner—noticed that throughout the tour the trainer was receiving text messages on his cell phone.
Once the tour was completed, the trainer checked the messages, which alerted him that an emergency had taken place. He responded by texting: “What’s wrong?”
“I was talking to him while he was waiting for an answer,” recalls the gym owner. “When the text message response came, I saw the life and energy fade from his eyes as he dropped to his knees in slow motion.”
When Sonnemaker asked what had happened, the trainer told him, “My brother just died.”
Fitness professionals are not immune to difficulty. At some point in your career, it’s likely that one of your employees will suffer a significant personal blow. How do you offer support while maintaining professional boundaries and keeping business moving forward as usual? Find out how Sonnemaker and other industry veterans handled such a sensitive and challenging task.
Sonnemaker recalls, “I scooped him up in my arms and held him while his emotions burst forth. I told him that things would be okay and that the entire Catalyst Fitness team was there for him. Then we sat on the ground for quite some time talking.”
Sonnemaker encouraged the trainer to call a few close friends—he had no immediate family as he had already lost his parents—as well as a close colleague. Then Sonnemaker took this group to lunch, feeling that initially it was best to keep the employee occupied and surrounded by those who loved and supported him.
The trainer didn’t appear to bring his personal difficulties with him to the gym, says Sonnemaker. He maintained complete professionalism, and there was no noticeable decline in performance or work ethic.
However, Sonnemaker checked in with the trainer every so often, to be sure he understood that a support system was in place if he ever needed it.
Sonnemaker explains, “Our constant contact and checking in was one of the things that helped him. Just like when we’re working with clients, the idea of accountability and knowing that someone cares can make all the difference in the world. We also offered him some money (no strings attached) to help offset the expenses of the funeral, travel and time off. He politely and respectfully declined.”
Several years ago, Carrie Haines, former director of group fitness at Saint Mary’s Center for Health & Fitness in Reno, Nevada, noticed that one of her instructors had begun to request subs for her classes more frequently. She was a standout employee, which triggered Haines’s concern. Eventually, Haines called the instructor at home to inquire about the unusual behavior.
“She phoned me back with the news that she had cancer,” Haines remembers. “It was all over her body—stage 4. It was a terrible blow.”
Haines, who is now the fitness program advisor for Tahoe Mountain Martial Arts & Yoga in Truckee, California, took a deep breath and encouraged the instructor to tell her more about what was happening. She then asked if she could pay the trainer a visit.
“I drove to her house the next day, and we hugged it out. I wanted to make sure she knew that the entire club was behind her and that I was committed to her well-being. After I left her, I think I cried for about a day.”
Haines felt concerned about how the instructor would fare as the days passed. She was worried both for the employee and for the members she served.
“Her illness was hit and miss,” Haines confides. “She’d have good days when she could work and bad days when she couldn’t. Chemo and radiation took a toll on her as well. I was also concerned about how this would affect other staff and members, who just adored her.”
Haines knew that at some point she might have to replace the instructor, if she could no longer maintain her schedule. So the two met to discuss which of the facility’s other personnel could best fill in for her. Those employees took on the classes, knowing that the instructor would return to those time slots when she felt well enough to do so.
“She never did feel well enough again, and ultimately I was glad to have those classes covered,” Haines says. “We had to move forward—business as usual—for the sake of our members, and for her sake as well. It made her feel good to know that her students were being taken care of.”
Haines notes that the club rallied behind the instructor. They made bracelets in her honor that everyone wore. “Honestly, just being there for that person and showing your support is huge.”
In 2014, the instructor lost her battle with cancer.
“She left an indelible [impression] on my heart and changed me for the better,” Haines shares. “I’m grateful that I was her manager, so that I could have the opportunity to know her.”
At a GoodLife Fitness® location in Canada, an employee experienced a breakup that turned sour. The instructor eventually grew fearful for her safety, as her ex was a member of the gym and frequently attended her classes.
“I heard about the situation because the instructor contacted me out of frustration,” explained the company’s vice president, Maureen Hagan, 2006 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. “She felt that the club manager wasn’t giving it enough attention, and that she was not being heard or understood.”
Hagan reached out to the individual’s direct manager to gain a better understanding of the circumstances. The manager explained that she wasn’t aware of the severity of the problem; however, she had noticed that the instructor would often give up her classes. Later it became clear that she was doing this because she felt unsafe at work.
“We invited her to take a leave of absence from teaching at that particular club, but she did not want to leave,” Hagan says. “We offered her a shoulder to lean on; we helped coach her through her options, so that she could feel safe and could be effective in teaching her classes; and we recommended that she speak to a professional counselor through our Employee Assistance Program.”
Hagan says that the manager then spoke with the ex, and asked this person to visit the gym during times that fell outside the instructor’s regular schedule.
The instructor “was very appreciative of this, and she resumed her teaching schedule soon after,” Hagan reports. “From that point on, she felt supported and loved by her GoodLife family, and this helped her through her tough days.”
Words of Advice
Hagan says of her experience that it’s important to remain as impartial as possible, because there are two sides to every story. She adds that it’s also important to avoid overreacting.
“I practiced patience with this instructor as she worked through her difficulties with her ex,” Hagan recalls. “I checked in with her regularly, but I limited myself in order to avoid getting personally involved.”
Another important step was to defer to the company’s human resources team, known affectionately at GoodLife Fitness as the People Department, for input and coaching.
“Listen first,” advises Haines. “Empathize [with the employee], and ask questions. React once you have a sound mind.”
Finally, Sonnemaker speaks of the importance of addressing difficult situations as quickly as possible. “As a small business, we have the luxury to respond immediately and compassionately to protect our team members and help them when they need it,” he asserts. “Lead with your heart; it’s the right thing and the only thing to do. Treat your employees and fellow team members like family.”