Managing Underperformance and Mental Health Concerns

Managing underperformance in the workplace can sometimes be complicated by mental health concerns. These situations are often very difficult for managers and employees, particularly if an employee takes time off work with stress or another mental health problem while they are being disciplined or having their performance managed.

Problems such as these are less likely to happen if job roles and objectives are clear, appropriate training is provided, communication between a manager and an employee is effective and any concerns about performance and behaviour are addressed informally at an early stage.

In many cases, reasons for poor performance are not well explored, even when a mental health issue is suspected, as managers can become hesitant to take the usual steps with performance issues for fear of exacerbating an employee’s stress. 

Issues that are not managed well may end up in a grievance being brought by the employee, allegations of bullying taken to the Fair Work Commission or a successful claim for Workers Compensation.

The circumstances vary for every situation so there is no one best process to use when managing underperformance where mental health concerns exist and it is recommended to seek advice from HR On Demand before taking any steps.

Preparation for a discussion on underperformance is a priority and key considerations should include:

  • attempt to explore the reasons for poor performance, particularly when a mental health problem is known or suspected
  • give employees an opportunity to disclose any health problems that might be impacting on their performance but keep discussions focused on work issues
  • approach discussions in a nonjudgmental way, asking simple questions about whether anything is affecting the employee’s performance
  • if an employee discloses a mental health problem, consider and agree on any reasonable adjustments and how these might be implemented
  • where possible, provide support and make reasonable adjustments before following formal performance management procedures
  • consider allowing the employee to be supported in meetings by a mental health advocate or someone who understands their mental health problem
  • use mediation to resolve conflict if necessary
  • in cases where both formal performance management and sickness absence/return-to-work processes are being followed at the same time, try and keep these separately focused
  • make sure policies and procedures on performance management are clearly explained so employees know what to expect

Be careful not to make assumptions about how a mental health issue affects an employee and avoid asking intrusive questions or forcing an employee to disclose a health issue.

Take notes during any discussions about performance and follow up a discussion with an email or letter confirming what was said and agreed.

If you would like assistance in:

  • managing an underperformance issue
  • how to have difficult conversations
  • creating a psychologically safe workplace

please don’t hesitate to reach out: