This section offers additional information to assist you in Developing employee plans for leaders to address performance issues taking mental health into account. It can also be useful to review before resolving conflict, return-to-work or accommodation planning. At each of these stages, effectively resolving performance issues, can help protect the mental health of the employee.
Why this matters
Some workplaces have adopted performance management processes that focus primarily on intervening only when an employee is not performing at their best or as expected. While it’s important to address and resolve what’s not working, focusing on the negative tends to reduce motivation of the employee and often the leader as well. If the employee is also experiencing mental health issues, there’s 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 do their 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 most 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. While human rights usually prevents you from asking about a diagnosis, if you suspect a mental health issue, you can continue to support performance in a psychologically safe way. But if you think it’s necessary to begin disciplinary action, you should first apply the “rule out” rule. To learn more about when accommodation is necessary, see Legal duty to accommodate.
Communicate without judgment
Be aware of your assumptions and judgments about an employee's behaviour. While these are part of human behaviour, it is possible to communicate without allowing these to dictate or influence your response. Learn how.
Consider emotional triggers
It’s important to understand and manage your own reaction to an employee's performance or behaviour at work. Emotional triggers can help with this.
Be supportive and clear
When mental health issues, such as chronic mental 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?" Learn more about Communicating with clarity.
- For more tips see Communicating with emotional employees.
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. Learn how.
Build on existing strengths
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 to understand for leaders. Understand the perspective of the employee who is having performance issues before discussing solutions.
- Why blame and shame don't work for leaders. Focus on solutions rather than what went wrong or who was responsible.
- Getting employee commitment for leaders. Help employees to develop their own solutions so that when challenges arise, they are more committed to overcoming the obstacles.
- Before you say no for leaders. 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.
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 the conversation
Prepare for a conversation about performance by reviewing Questions to ask before engaging the employee.
Work with employees to create an objective measure of performance
The Task improvement process | PDF and Task improvement worksheet | PDF 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 about any other tasks they do that you are not aware of.
- Conduct the review over a set period of time (e.g. one to two weeks after completing the Task improvement worksheet | PDF, 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 them in all aspects of their job.
Follow up and follow through
As outlined in Developing employee plans for leaders, 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.
Creating positive team culture
Build 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 activities can help increase team cohesiveness and resilience.
Have ongoing dialogue
Discussion about performance is less stressful when it is part of everyday dialogue. Regularly set measurable 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’re being heard. Improve effective listening techniques for all employees with resources such as Listening to understand for leaders.
Tough conversations around performance can be less stressful if a trusting relationship already exists between you and the employee. See Strengthening relationships to learn more.
Increasing manager competency
An important skill to develop is the ability to focus on employee strengths while still supporting productivity and performance. 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. The process described under Developing employee plans for leaders can help improve your approach to performance management.
The Psychologically Safe Leader Assessment provides opportunity to assess and improve strategies related to psychological health and safety in areas that can impact performance management
Emotional intelligence for leaders provides activities to improve emotional intelligence related to leading, managing and supporting employees.
Performance management and interviewing tools
The Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction 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 and questions | PDF – Interviewing for Supervisor Position
Interviewing tools and questions | PDF – Interviewing for Senior Management Position
Performance management tools | PDF – Supervisor Performance Review
Performance management tools | PDF – Senior Management Performance Review
These workshops are intended for an audience of people leaders. All materials are free to use.
Building trust workshop
This workshop is for those who manage, support or lead employees. In this workshop, you'll learn to build trust and support employee success.
Supporting task improvement workshop
This workshop is for those who manage, support or lead employees. This process helps employees accomplish tasks effectively through creating their own measurable path to success.