How can a disciplinary process impact somebody with a mental illness?

HRD investigates the support that should be offered to an employee with a mental illness during performance management

How can a disciplinary process impact somebody with a mental illness?
A rigorous and formal disciplinary process can have a “devastating” impact on someone with a mental illness, according to Campbell Fisher, managing partner and solicitor director at FCB Group.

When an employee has a mental illness and a formalised performance management process is being contemplated the first question you need to ask yourself is whether they are capable of participating, he told HRD.

“It’s important to question whether somebody with a mental illness is actually well enough to properly respond to a process and make decisions for themselves,” he said.

“That’s always a difficult issue. Essentially it is a medical question rather than a legal question, but it’s something that people often don’t pay enough attention to.

“Instead, they just launch straight into a process and wonder why it doesn’t go very well.”

Fisher said that determining whether an employee is well enough to participate in the process should be conducted through an independent medical assessment, particularly if the person is contending that they are not well enough.

He added that there are a range of structures that can be added to a process to be as objective and fair as possible.

“Obviously if there is are interpersonal issues at play you might want to introduce some different people to the process,” said Fisher.

“You would normally offer the person who is going through the process a support person so that they can be supported through the process.

“If the person is really unwell you have got to assess whether the process itself places them at further risk of harm and whether it is also manageable for the people who are involved in the process with them.” 

So what type of support does someone with a mental illness really need during performance management?

“Lots of organisations have employee assistance programs (EAPs), which allow you to separate the support and treatment of the mental health condition visa vie the work issues,” he said.

“I think that’s a really important to set the boundary around what kind of support employees who work in the business with the person should give and what kind of support is more appropriately given by an appropriately qualified medical practitioner.”

Fisher added that it can be stressful when you are managing a person with serious mental health issues, particularly if they someone who may threaten to self-harm.

“It can be not only a danger to them but also to the people around them who take on the responsibility of trying to ensure that they don’t do that,” he said.

“People who have mental health issues sometimes operate in unpredictable ways and the obligation of organisations is not only to protect their health and safety at work but also the other people at work.

“Sometimes that issue can get lost in the dealing with the person who has actually got the mental health issue.”

Related stories:
Four tips to improve mental health in the workplace
Mental health investments pay, survey finds
The best way to improve employees’ mental health

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