Poor performance or mental illness?

by Marian Spencer21 Nov 2017
To perform at their best, employees need to feel mentally healthy, safe and valued at work but mental illness is now the leading cause of absence and long term incapacity in Australia.

Behaviours that are often associated with anxiety and depression such as poor time management, conflict, difficulty concentrating and making decisions may very easily be misinterpreted in the workplace as under performance.

As a business you are entitled to apply your performance management process to someone with a mental illness so long as you remain compliant with all relevant acts and legislation, including the Disability Act.

However, it is unlawful to dismiss someone due to mental illness and you can easily run into serious problems if an employee can prove a causal link between work and their mental health.

If underperformance is affected by excessive levels of stress or mental illness you are better off supporting this person’s recovery than putting them through a stressful process of formal performance management.

As employers we need to acknowledge that a person’s mental health is something that impacts their life and work and is also impacted by the workplace that we recruit them into. Workers compensation claims for psychological injury are often the result of poorly managed change, poor job design or poor workplace culture.

Continuous change, including uncertainty over the future and rapid shifts in the direction of work, is one of the central challenges for maintaining mental health and well-being at work.

Employers need to start owning their contribution to psychological harm that occurs at work and take more responsibility for damage that can be afflicted on employees.

So, how can you tell the difference between an employee who is underperforming and an employee who is struggling with a mental illness?

Before jumping straight into a formal performance management process, it is critical that you find out what you are dealing with.

Intervene as early as possible, whether it’s a health issue or a performance issue the sooner you understand and take appropriate action the more likely you are to achieve a good outcome.

Ask questions and consider all options and make sure your questions come from a place of caring and concern.

Has this person’s performance changed? Have they performed well in the past? Is there an external issue that could be affecting them? Has this person been affected by any workplace change?

There is of course the issue of stigma that is attached to mental illness, people don’t want to say anything and can be very reluctant to seek help. It is important that any formal performance management process includes at every stage the question “Are there any health issues bothering you? Are you OK?” Give employees every opportunity to disclose illness to you, welcome and encourage help seeking.

If your employees performance is being affected by stress, external factors or mental illness you can provide support using reasonable adjustments to the nature of their work or work environment.

Flexibility and reasonable adjustments can prevent someone becoming unwell and can also support them during illness and can be a far more efficient way of helping them stay engaged and improving their performance.

When faced with a performance issue in the workplace, intervene early, ask questions and remember that symptoms and behaviours associated with mental illness can look very similar to those associated with under performance.

Don’t rush into formal performance management, consider support and assistance first.

Marian Spencer, Head of Operations People and Culture at the Black Dog Institute

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