SUMMARY:Performance management that criticizes and focuses on problems can be especially difficult for an employee with a mental health issue. However, supportive performance management that focuses on solutions and employee success can contribute to the employee's well-being.

This section offers additional information to assist you in Developing a Workplace Plan to address performance issues taking mental health into account.

Why this matters

Some workplaces have adopted performance management processes that focus primarily on intervening when someone is not working well. While it is important to address and resolve what is not working, focusing on the negative tends to deplete the energy of the employee and, often, of the manager as well. If the employee is also experiencing mental health issues, there is a risk that this approach may result in a worsening of both the symptoms and the work performance. Effectively supporting good performance is an important management skill and the suggestions here can be applied whether or not an employee has a mental health issue.

Performance and mental health issues

Many employees can and do work while experiencing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, with little impact on productivity. Of course, like any illness, there are situations in which the individual is not able to work due to the severity of the condition. However, in the majority of cases, supportive performance management can be the key to continued productivity.

  • Rule out rule. When you have identified a performance concern, rule out the possibility that it may be related to a mental health issue before you consider disciplinary action. Even if you suspect a mental health issue, you can continue to manage performance in a supportive way as described below. When you think it is necessary to begin disciplinary action you should first apply the rule out rule.
  • Communicate without judgment. Be aware of your assumptions and judgments about an employee's behaviour. While assumptions or judgments are part of human behaviour, it is possible to communicate without allowing these to dictate or influence your response.
  • Consider emotional triggers. It is important to understand and manage your own reaction to an employee's performance or behaviour at work. The free resource Managing Emotions can help you to do this.
  • Be supportive and clear. When mental health issues, such as chronic stress, burnout, anxiety or depression are present, performance management needs to be especially supportive and clear.
    • Supportive performance management focuses on the intended outcomes rather than the problem. This makes the conversation feel less like criticism and more like a collaboration focused on a solution.
      Example: Instead of saying "This report is full of errors," you might say, "We need this report to be error-free. What do you need to make that happen?"
    • Be clear to avoid misinterpretation. Example: Instead of saying, "Do not be late for meetings," you might say, "I need you to be at meetings at least one minute before they start. How can I help you to do that?"
  • Relate issues to performance rather than personality.
    Example: Instead of saying "You are being disrespectful to the team when you're late for meetings," you could say, "When you are not present at the beginning of the meeting we miss out on your contribution to the issues or we need to take more time to cover the issue again."
  • Highlight strengths first. This could include emphasizing an employee's effort, value to the team, or previous accomplishments.
  • Separate acknowledging from agreeing. Rather than agreeing or disagreeing, try to demonstrate an understanding of the other person's perspective before you offer your own opinion.
  • When mental health is a factor, it is especially important to engage the employee in developing their own solutions and build on existing strengths. The following articles provide tips and strategies to help achieve these goals:
    • Listening for Understanding. Understand the perspective of the employee who is having performance issues before discussing solutions.
    • Why Blame & Shame Don't Work. Focus on solutions rather than what went wrong or who was responsible.
    • Commitment over Compliance. Help employees to develop their own solutions so that when challenges arise they are more committed to overcoming the obstacles.
    • Before you say no, ask why? Understand that all requests or behaviours are actually an attempt to meet a need. While you may not be able to give people what they want or ask for, you can often satisfy the underlying need.
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An employee who experienced depression at work talks about what he needs from a manager to stay productive.

Resolving performance issues

A process that is sensitive, positive and constructive can help the employee feel valued and better able to perform. The following are some ideas to help make your performance management strategy more supportive.

  • Prepare for a conversation about performance by reviewing Questions to ask yourself before engaging an employee in the tough stuff.
  • Work with employees to create an objective measure of performance. We have developed a Productivity Review form that can be integrated with your existing performance management approaches to help focus on specific tasks that may be challenging for an employee.
    • To avoid the appearance of being punitive, this review could be done annually with all employees and more often with those struggling with performance issues. 
    • The intent is to use this approach to help support success, uncover challenges and develop solutions. 
    • In discussing challenges, be open to recognizing how your approach or management style may be problematic for some employees. 
    • When discussing the tasks, be sure to ask the employee if there is any other work they do that you are not aware of. 
    • Conduct the review over a set time period of time (e.g. 1 to 2 weeks after completing, arrange to get back together to assess how it worked out).
    • Acknowledge with the employee that while the development of the review may seem tedious, it will provide long term value to help you gain a better understanding to support employees in all aspects of their jobs.
  • Follow-up and follow through. As outlined in Developing a Workplace Plan, scheduling time for follow-up reinforces your ongoing commitment to the employee's success and well-being. This also helps to ensure that issues are addressed and changes made as required.
  • If successful, commit to follow through on the results of the review and share praise and recognition for what has been accomplished.
  • If not successful, clarify next steps, which could be a modified approach, an accommodation if the challenge is related to a disability, or beginning progressive discipline if necessary.

If the employee is eligible for accommodation or there are multiple tasks and job performance issues to consider, you may want to look at the more comprehensive Supporting Employee Success Tool.

The free video training module Managing Performance, features approaches managers can use to address performance issues with employees who may be experiencing mental health problems.

Creating positive team culture

  • Create a positive environment. Constructive feedback and positive reinforcement are cornerstones of a healthy and respectful workplace. Regularly engage employees in developing positive solutions to any workplace issue to help reduce negativity and defensiveness. Team Building provides activities that you can use to help increase team cohesiveness and resilience.  
  • Have ongoing dialogue. Discussion about performance is less stressful when it is part of everyday dialogue. Regularly set measureable goals, provide consistent feedback and sustain ongoing conversations about performance with all employees.
  • Listen as much as you talk. Employees are more likely to be engaged when they feel they are being heard. Improve effective listening techniques for all employees with resources such as Active Listening: Hear What People are Really Saying, courtesy of MindTools.  
  • Strengthen relationships. Tough conversations around performance can be less stressful if a trusting relationship already exists between you and the employee.

Increasing manager competency

The ability to focus on employee strengths while still supporting productivity and performance is an important skill to develop. This can be particularly effective when working with employees who may be experiencing mental health issues.

These skill sets are not easily acquired through reading books, articles or web pages. Managing Mental Health Matters, a free, online, video-based training program, includes a number of effective strategies for managers and supervisors. This, combined with the process described under Developing a Workplace Plan, can help improve your approach to performance management.

Performance management and interviewing tools

The Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse has done significant work in the area of behavioural and technical competencies. While The Competencies for Canada's Substance Abuse Workforce was developed for the addiction field, they provide a valuable resource that helps identify specific and measurable skills, knowledge, attitudes and values important to good management of people.

They also provide supporting tools to help individuals adopt and apply the competencies in their work settings.

These tools can help facilitate learning and development strategies for staff, and support the hiring and retention of skilled people. This resource applies directly to those working in supervision, administration and senior management. Review their practical and adaptable resources:

Interviewing Tools & Questions – Interviewing for Supervisor Position
Interviewing Tools & Questions – Interviewing for Senior Management Position
Performance Management Tools – Supervisor Performance Review
Performance Management Tools – Senior Management Performance Review

Additional Resources

The following are links to resources that may be of interest to you. If you click on a link you may be entering a third party website not maintained or controlled in any way by us or our affiliated companies. For more information, see Legal and Copyright.

Using Body Language
Body language is an important part of communication, which can constitute 50% or more of what we are communicating. Information courtesy of ChangingMinds.org.