How to tell the difference between a staff member who’s underperforming, and one who’s suffering with their mental health

A key part of any manager’s job is to know how to approach staff who are struggling to do their job to the required standards or expectations.

But with increasing recognition of mental illness in the workplace, before you begin a performance management process with a staff member, it’s important to ask: could this be a mental health problem, rather than a pure performance problem?

And how do you tell the difference?

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

With more than 20 years of leadership, management and operational experience in the not-for-profit sector, she’s speaking at the 2017 Not-For-Profit People Conference about why it’s critical to identify the cause of underperformance in the workplace, the challenges involved, and the consequences of failing to take mental health issues into account.

Ahead of her presentation, we chatted to her about how Australian NFPs should be approaching this challenging staff mental health issue:

Hi Marian, thank you for taking the time to chat to us! Mental illness is now the leading cause of staff absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia – why is that?

There’s a misconception that the prevalence of common mental disorders like depression and anxiety are increasing. Evidence actually shows that over the last 15 years the occurrence is stable – it’s stayed pretty much the same.

What has changed is that the number of people going on sickness absence or DSP allowances has increased by 51 percent. So the question is: why do we have such a large increase of people being recorded as unwell?

One explanation is that there’s been an increased recognition of the role of mental illness in the workplace. There’s somewhat of an acceptance of mental illness, so people are more likely to be off work with a recorded mental illness, and that’s likely affecting the numbers.

So in light of that, if a staff member is underperforming, what the best way to compassionately approach them about it?

I think it’s really critical to find out what the cause is, and as early as is absolutely possible. It’s essential to avoid confusion between somebody who might be underperforming because they’re not competent or don’t have the right skills, as opposed to someone who’s actually becoming or is unwell. Instead of judging them, you might as well visit for more info on what to give them to lower their stress levels.

One of the worst things that can happen to someone who’s unwell and struggling to perform well at work because of it is to find themselves in the super stressful situation of being performance managed. Early intervention is absolutely key to whether the performance issue is deemed to be competency-based or health-based. The sooner a manager can step in and identify the issue and its likely cause, the earlier the correct intervention can occur.

So how can a manager or HR person tell the difference between someone experiencing mental health issues, and broader underperformance?

That’s a really good question, and sometimes you can’t! But I think you always need to consider a person’s mental health – particularly if the person has performed well and been competent in the past.

If a person has always performed really well and then suddenly there’s a change, that’s a clue that it’s not competency or ability but that something else is affecting their performance.

So if you have a staff member who’s always performed really well – or even just a staff member who’s performed well enough – but there’s a change, it’s an indication that something’s happened.

A good way to tell is to intervene early. Just ask them. For instance:

‘I noticed you’re not able to get to work on time anymore – is there something wrong? Are you okay?

Are you okay?’ should be a mantra that runs throughout our dialogue with our people and we should foster a workplace culture that welcomes early disclosure and help-seeking.

In addition, there are many online tools that provide a guide on how you can recognise mental illness in the workplace. Black Dog has an entire toolkit online – the workplace toolkit – which can be used to identify mental health issues in the workplace and there is also Heads Up, which is a fantastic set of resources.

What are the main challenges of identifying mental health issues as the cause of a staff member’s underperformance?

There’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental health. And a lot of workplaces don’t encourage help-seeking or disclosure, so that can be a challenge for someone. If they don’t feel they can go to their manager and say, for example, ‘I am struggling with anxiety and depression, I just couldn’t face things this morning,’ then that’s a big challenge.

Lack of general knowledge about mental health across workplaces is also a big challenge – what symptoms might look like, how they might manifest, and so on.

And what happens if a manager uses traditional performance management processes to deal with someone experiencing mental health issues?

Doing that is going to exacerbate a mental health issue. Traditional performance management is a pretty stressful process to go through. Stress is not a clinical health condition, but anxiety and depression are. And stress can certainly exacerbate the condition of someone who’s already unwell.

You’re essentially risking causing further psychological injury. If you’ve just got someone who’s unwell – nothing to do with anything that’s happened in the workplace – and then you performance manage them and exacerbate that illness, then the consequence is that you’re creating workplace injury on top of their mental health illness.

What does the Black Dog Institute as an organisation do to address impaired performance due to mental health issues?

That’s my job – my job is to practice what we preach! We do workplace training for managers and resilience training for all staff, and we’ve also got a really comprehensive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace policy. This creates a framework within which we are able to deal with issues as they arise.

The manifestation of mental illness can be so diverse depending on what’s happening with the individual person. So having a framework actually gives you something to go to and say,

‘Okay, this is how we create a culture of early help-seeking and disclosure, this is how we limit stigma so people can seek help, this is how we create a workplace culture that welcomes all of that and provides support’.

We also provide a range of different reasonable adjustments in the workplace that enable people to stay in the office. It could be as simple as moving a desk so it’s facing the door, which could make a critical difference for someone who has anxiety and finds it very stressful to have someone come up behind them. Employees may seek help from Tangled Roots Psychology.

If it’s not possible to keep people in the workplace, our policy outlines how we can keep communicating with people to keep them in the loop if they’re off work for a time. Communication is so important – keeping people connected and supporting them while they are away and when they return.

Your people should matter and should not be treated like a resource that can easily be replaced. I am a firm believer that if we treat people like humans – not resources – we will create a more engaged and productive workforce from which both the employees and the business will benefit.

And just finally, what else will you be sharing in your presentation at the Not-For-Profit People Conference?

I’m going to share some actual case studies – to show real examples of people becoming unwell in the workplace with a varying degree of illness. I’d like to show ways in which these issues have been dealt with successfully – and unsuccessfully – in the workplace.

See Marian’s presentation at the 2017 Not-For-Profit People Conference on November 13 and 14 – find out more and book your place here.

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