By Vaughan Granier & Isaac Chan
Maintaining a supportive workplace environment for people who have mental health concerns is too important to ignore, and conversations around how we do this are becoming more common. As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment to your employees. This obligation makes having conversations even more important especially when considering how to handle performance management processes that involve a mental health concern. Performance and disciplinary management can create a stressful environment for any employee, but they can be even more stressful, and in some cases harmful for an employee struggling with their mental health. This is why it is so important that you handle the problem with appropriate care and follow the proper process.
First and foremost, if you become aware that your employee is experiencing issues with mental health, you should consider offering them access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have one available. This can be a great way to provide your employee with the support they need and ensure they have access to confidential counselling and other health services.
Is the underperformance due to the mental illness?
Once you’re ready to engage in a performance management process it may be worth taking a step back to determine whether the underperformance is due to the employee’s mental illness.
If you can identify that there may be a reasonable connection between the underperformance and an employee’s mental health then there may be a risk in proceeding in the performance management as it could be considered adverse action against an employee because of a protected attribute.
Should this be the case, there could be some risk in engaging in performance management and you must consider whether you can make reasonable accommodations or whether performance issues are more appropriately dealt with as an issue of capacity to meet inherent requirements of the role instead.
In this case, you should consider having a wellbeing catch up with the employee to grasp what their current situation is and identify things that they may be struggling with. You may find that the employee is struggling to work their contracted hours or cope with particularly busy times at work. If you can identify these issues early in the process it will be a lot easier for you to manage them and can eliminate the need to performance manage at all.
If your employee does raise concerns about their capacity to perform aspects of their role you can provide support in a number of ways.
- Offer the employee some time off to seek help or recuperate;
- Offer to temporality vary the employees working hours to alleviate their stress;
- Offer them a ‘lighter duties’ role which reflects their current capacity; and
- Encourage them to seek help and assistance when it is needed.
What should you do when dealing with an employee who may have a medical condition impacting their performance?
While each situation will be unique and should be approached as such, there are six general points you should cover as part of your process:
- Objectively consider the possibility of such a condition being a contributor to your employee’s conduct or performance. There’s no need for you to “invent” or “imagine” these concerns, but it is wise not to ignore any indication that such a condition may exist;
- Where such a condition is known, stop and seek professional advice about the best way to proceed;
- When you begin a process where such a condition is possible (but not definitely known), do so with respect for privacy. A good way to start is with an open discussion that is not threatening or demanding of the individual. Rather than tackling the issue bluntly, start wide and gradually narrow the focus ensuring you show empathy, strong listening skills and that you take care to pick up on any cues;
- Be prepared at every stage to pause proceedings to re-evaluate your approach or allow the employee to take a break if they are getting upset;
- Explore possibilities respectfully, without demanding or expecting your employee to disclose what may be embarrassing or compromising information. Communicate with them that the more you understand what the employee is going through the better equipped you are to support them and accommodate any needs they may have;
- You may request medical information in seeking to better understand the impact of the condition on performance, conduct and/or the employee’s capacity to be put through a performance management process (this may be subject to privacy constraints and may need to be approached cautiously and with a view to an agreement, not compliance).
Be proactive about reducing risk to your employee’s health and to your business
If a medical condition is confirmed, seeking professional advice is the best way to help you choose the right path forward. This will minimise the risk of unfairness while still achieving the best outcome for you and your employee.
Keep in mind that discipline and performance management processes are designed to correct performance and behaviour and return it to acceptable levels. Ask yourself whether the process itself may cause harm to an employee, especially if a medical health condition is recognised, and take proactive steps to reduce this risk. Your goal is an outcome that is constructive, that is good for your business and that does not compromise the health of your employee.
Vaughan Granier is the National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured NZ. He has over 24 years’ experience in international human resources, health and safety, and workplace relations management. With over 10 years working in New Zealand and Australian companies, he provides in-depth support to leadership teams across all areas of HR, Health and Safety, and employee management.
Isaac Chan is an experienced workplace relations consultant at FCB Group and HR Assured Australia. Isaac regularly handles complex workplace issues for all kinds of businesses, from start-ups to enterprise-level.