Hold off on performance plans – your employee might be ill

by Cameron Edmond05 Nov 2013

HC has reported extensively on issues surrounding Australian workplaces and mental health, but one expert has brought to light an area that is often overlooked.

Dr Mirella De Lorenzi-Romanella of Swinburne University of Technology stated that HR policies must advance to acknowledge and respect the reluctance of employees to reveal their mental illness, and be more aware that poor performance may be a result of mental illness and not a lapse in work ethic.

De Lorenzi-Romanella explained that the pervasiveness of mental illness across all levels of society means that many employees will experience it at some point during their lives, and it can potentially impact their ability to concentrate, feel good about themselves, or make decisions.

“With most people choosing to conceal such illnesses because of social stigma, we need to be mindful about how to approach staff whose attendance and/or work performance unexpectedly falls, as they may have a hidden mental illness.”


Key HR takeaway
In order to effectively approach the issue of mental illness in the workplace, De Lorenzi-Romanella has suggested HR adopt a ‘buffer stage’; this refers to policies that ensure employees with hidden illnesses do not have to undergo formal performance improvement plans (which they are unlikely to complete).

Buffer stage policies include flexible hours and breaks from work, as well as opportunities to disclose mental illness to a designated HR member in a confidential environment.

“Until social stigma subsides, and people with a mental illness feel comfortable about revealing their illness in the workplace, performance management policies for dealing with employees who choose not to disclose they have a mental illness need to change,” she said.


  • by Deborah 5/11/2013 2:11:04 PM

    As a HR Manager and someone who has experienced mental health from close range I am very empathic to the potential of bias and social stigma that can/does happen. I totally agree that a balanced approach needs to be taken when dealing with these (and other) issues, however, I also firmly believe that the employee in question needs to be responsible for their actions. If the employee is not taking responsible action for their illness, then adopting a 'buffer stage' may prove to be enabling and detrimental instead of constructively supporting.

    Employees have a right to privacy and if they do not want to disclose they have a mental illness then that is their choice and should be respected. However, as an employee they also have a responsibility towards their employer to fulfill the role requirements they were employed to accomplish.

    I see it as a two-way street. Employers need to ensure they develop and drive a workplace culture that will respect and support an employee in these (and other) circumstances. Employees need "own" and drive that culture also, and to be respectlful of their responsibilities to their employers.

    Perhaps the question should be, what do employees need in terms of a culture whereby they feel respected and supported to discuss (with HR or another manager) a mental illness issue they have. If this question isn't answered, the employer can't provide what the employee needs.

  • by SDM 5/11/2013 3:31:14 PM

    My intial response to this article was to EXHALE... slowly. This is so tough & I think we all know what the mentail illness stats are. Any of us are going to have lots of people in our workforce suffering from a mental illness at any one time. The complexity of course is that workloads are increasing & resources decreasing so people are under pressure suffreing stress & anxiety. Anyone with a Mentall illness is going to struggle more to deal with that pressure. I have to admit whenever I am advised to have a good policy (on anything) in place, it makes me irritable. The reality is that employment is an exchange - skill/work for pay. Therefore, at the crudest lever you need to perform to keep your job. Where employers need to be reasonable & socially responsible, I'm not sure the experts at Swinburne Uni have worked a day in a business... their recommendations aren't particularly helpful. I have had to work through issues with such people & things drag on for months & entire teams suffer. It's really messy & my duty of care extends to all the people affected, not just the one person. I don't know what the solution is, but a policy & giving them enought time to completely loose credibility is probably not the answer.

  • by Al 5/11/2013 3:48:50 PM

    Deborah and SDM's comments sum up my thoughts perfectly. This issue is MUCH bigger than a policy fix and the answer lies more with culture and a responsible common sense approach. Of course nothing is going to change overnight and cultural change in business requires cultural change in society so we still have a long way to go....Both employers and employees need to have responsibilities here though.

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