How to Navigate Performance Issues with Employees Facing Mental Health Challenges

In today's workplace, employers are increasingly recognising the importance of mental health and its impact on employee wellbeing and productivity. However, addressing performance issues in employees with mental health concerns can be tricky to deal with.

Balancing the need to support employees whilst also ensuring performance standards are met requires a thoughtful and empathetic approach. Amy Fletcher from Fitzgerald HR explores the reasons why it can be challenging for employers to tackle performance issues in employees with mental health problems and provides some top tips on how to approach a performance management conversation in such situations.

Challenges in Addressing Performance Issues

Let’s first start by looking at why it’s often hard to address issues with performance in employees who are struggling with their mental health. This can be because of:

  1. Fear of Saying the Wrong Thing: Managers and supervisors may worry about inadvertently exacerbating the employee's condition or causing additional distress. The stigma surrounding mental health can create a hesitancy to engage in open and honest conversations about performance concerns, leading to a lack of timely intervention and support.
  2. Stigma and Disclosure: Another challenge employers face is the stigma surrounding mental health. Many employees may be reluctant to disclose their mental health challenges due to fear of discrimination or negative consequences. As a result, employers may be unaware of an employee's struggles, making it difficult to address performance issues appropriately.
  3. Understanding the Impact: Mental health issues can have a significant impact on an employee's ability to perform at their best. Symptoms such as lack of concentration, low motivation, and reduced energy levels can hinder productivity and quality of work. It’s important that employers recognise and understand how mental health challenges can affect an individual's performance before addressing any issues.
  4. Balancing Support and Accountability: Creating a supportive environment for employees whilst maintaining performance standards can be a delicate balancing act. Employers need to ensure they are accommodating and understanding of an employee's mental health challenges and simultaneously communicating expectations and addressing performance gaps to ensure business objectives are met.

Identifying Performance Issues in Employees with Mental Health Concerns

Although challenging, it’s vital that ongoing issues with performance are identified and addressed rather than swept under the carpet. Here are some strategies to help determine performance issues and decide how to address them appropriately:

Observation and Documentation

Observe and document specific performance issues that may be related to an employee's mental health concerns. These could include changes in productivity, missed deadlines, increased errors, or difficulty concentrating. By keeping a record of these observations, you can identify patterns and trends that may help pinpoint triggers and areas for improvement.

Open and Ongoing Communication

Establishing open lines of communication is essential for understanding an employee's performance challenges related to mental health so encourage employees to share their experiences and any difficulties they may be facing. Regular check-ins provide opportunities for employees to express concerns, seek support, and address performance issues in a timely manner.

Equity in Performance Assessment

It’s key to recognise that when evaluating the performance of employees with mental health concerns, their performance must be assessed fairly. Avoid making comparisons based solely on quantitative metrics without considering the individual circumstances. Furthermore, acknowledge that mental health challenges can impact productivity and efficiency so expectations should be adjusted accordingly.

What to do Prior to Performance Management

Before any formal process begins, ensure the line manager has discussed the concerns informally with the individual in the first instance. Approach the conversation from a wellbeing perspective, as the employee may not be aware that their performance has been impacted by their mental health. Take this time to understand what the employee is going through (if they are happy to share this). A referral to Occupational Health or guidance from their GP could help the line manager and the employee ensure the right approach is taken.

Once the concerns have been highlighted to the individual, they should be given an opportunity to improve their performance before taking it forward. The time given to improve performance might be longer than another employee who isn’t experiencing poor mental health, particularly if the mental health is related to an ongoing life event.

Ensure that regular check-ins are arranged with the individual and that they receive the support they need to improve their performance. This could be counselling via the organisation’s EAP (employee assistance programme), additional job-specific coaching, or even soft skills training.

Approaching a Performance Management Conversation

So, you’ve identified performance issues and highlighted them informally, but there’s still no sign of improvement. What’s next?

Approaching the first stage of performance management, in line with your organisation’s policy, should be done in a sensitive way. Once you’ve collected the evidence, in most policies, this usually involves an initial meeting with the employee to progress performance improvement procedures.

Here are some important tips to keep in mind when preparing for the initial meeting with the individual:

  1. Create a Safe and Trusting Environment: Remember that employees experiencing mental health issues may feel more emotional than usual, and this may present as being agitated or tearful, so start by choosing a safe and private space to have the discussion so that the employee doesn’t need to worry about colleagues seeing their reactions. Establishing an atmosphere of trust and psychological safety is key, as is prioritising confidentiality to encourage open and honest communication. This environment allows employees to feel comfortable discussing their mental health challenges and performance concerns without fear of judgment or repercussions.
  2. Gather Relevant Information: Before initiating a performance management conversation, gather relevant information about the employee's job responsibilities, past performance, and any documented accommodations or discussions related to their mental health challenges. This information will help you approach the conversation with a fair and informed perspective.
  3. Adopt an Empathetic and Collaborative Approach: Approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. Acknowledge the employee's mental health challenges and express a genuine desire to support their wellbeing. Encourage the employee to share their experiences and any specific difficulties they face in meeting performance expectations. Lastly, collaborate with the employee to identify potential solutions or accommodations to help them perform at their best.
  4. Provide Clear Feedback and Expectations: Clearly communicate your observations regarding the employee's performance issues using specific examples and focussing on behaviours and outcomes rather than making assumptions about their mental health. Collaboratively set performance expectations, ensuring they are realistic and achievable given the employee's circumstances. And provide constructive feedback and offer support, resources, or referrals to mental health programs if appropriate.
  5. Follow-Up and Ongoing Support: Check in regularly with the employee to monitor progress, offer ongoing support, and be open to adjusting performance expectations or accommodations as needed. Encourage the employee to share any challenges they encounter and provide assistance in finding resources or professional help if necessary. Individuals experiencing mental health issues find talking about their issues particularly helpful; signposting to the organisation’s EAP can aid the employee in securing counselling.

Take Aways

Navigating performance management with employees facing mental health challenges can sometimes feel uncomfortable for managers and supervisors. However, these conversations should not be avoided, but approached in a considered way.

Employers can effectively manage performance conversations by recognising the stigma and disclosure concerns, understanding the impact of mental health on performance, and striking a balance between support and accountability.

Creating a safe and trusting environment, gathering relevant information, adopting an empathetic approach, providing clear feedback, and offering ongoing support are all key strategies in navigating performance management conversations with employees facing mental health challenges. Ultimately, building a healthy and productive work environment for all employees, regardless of their mental health challenges, benefits both individuals and the organisation as a whole.

More resources

Improving Workplace Mental Health: Your Complete Guide

Guide to developing an effective mental wellbeing strategy

Stress bucket template

Amy Fletcher

Amy is based in Newport, South Wales and works as part of the Marketing and Business Development team at Fitzgerald HR. Amy is qualified HR practitioner and has several years of experience working in human resources from public sector to retail. Amy originally joined Fitzgerald HR as a Senior HR Consultant, before transitioning to the role of Communications Manager.

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