Managing underperformance where it is linked to mental ill health is among the most complex and difficult situations a manager can face. Clear expectations of roles, responsibilities, provision of support, as well as regular informal feedback on performance, help to create good relationships and a healthy performance management culture.
Following standard good practice (with an additional consideration of any need for reasonable adjustment) is all that is expected.
Why it matters
Positive working relationships are built on communication and trust. Regular conversations with employees about their role, capabilities and how work gets done will enhance engagement and productivity.
However, poor performance management practices such as a lack of regular feedback or using formal processes before understanding the issues impacting on performance can result in a breakdown in relationships, mental harm and potential workers’ compensation claims.
Sometimes performance is not at the usual standard when a person is unwell or is managing significant personal issues (for example illness in the family, bereavement, domestic violence or other personal crises). As a manager, the first thing that you need to do is to understand the reason for poor performance and how you can support the employee, including supporting them to perform well at work.
Performance management is a process for employees to receive sufficient feedback to maintain or improve their performance and align work to broader organisational goals. It is not just dealing with poor performance but is about encouraging and enabling success, providing employees with a sense of organisational purpose and role clarity, and matching skills to the work required.
How it’s done
Employees with mental health conditions can be performance managed. However, in some cases it may be vital to incorporate clinical information when doing so. This information about the employee’s condition, and its impact on their functioning, will guide the parameters of performance management. This material can often be obtained from treating practitioners, or may need to be accessed via a fitness for duty assessment with a mental health specialist (e.g. a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist). It is recommended that you seek advice from your human resources team.
Remember you must obtain written permission from the employee before contacting any treating practitioner and then maintain confidentiality at all times.
Ensure that the employee has clear expectations around their role, responsibilities and accountability. There are a number of resources available to managers: business plans depicting how the role fits in with the context of the organisation, corporate capability development frameworks and work level standards, job descriptions, as well as the APS Integrated Leadership System (ILS).
Discuss ways that you can improve every team member’s experience at work, even when they are performing well.
Give regular feedback and have conversations about how you can work together to achieve goals. Informal feedback includes guidance, coaching, support and encouragement. Discuss clarity of the role, performance standards, support required, and learning and development needs. This will help minimise discrepancy between the manager’s and employee’s perception of performance.
Remember—have clear expectations, regular feedback, and no surprises in the formal performance conversation.
Recognise changes in behaviour due to ill health including a decline in performance or an increase in absenteeism or sick leave use. People with chronic conditions who are good performers sometimes need time away from work to deal with their medical condition. Some people will try to stay at work during a difficult time, but their performance can slip. In these situations, it is your job to support the employee to make good decisions about their ongoing contribution to the team’s work, with a view to maintaining their contribution over the longer term.1
There is an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to eliminate and or reduce barriers which may exist for the employee to perform the inherent requirements of the job.
Performance appraisals—make sure that there are no surprises in the formal appraisal. Regular feedback supported by evidence will help to ensure this. Use SMART goals whenever possible.
SMART Goals are goals that are:
Relevant, and can be implemented within a
Dealing with conflict and reasonable management action.
Reasonable administrative action is defined in the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act) to include a performance appraisal, counselling, suspension or disciplinary action.
The critical issue is the way in which an administrative action is actually undertaken in the workplace. The action must be lawful and fair, objectively assessed in the context of the circumstances, the knowledge of those involved at the time, and the emotional state and psychological health of the employee.
The importance of creating and retaining proper records in relation to administrative actions concerning a person’s employment, especially when issues of underperformance, interpersonal conflict and poor conduct are alleged, must be emphasised. Failure to do so may lead to unfairness and difficulty establishing the facts.
- Your agency’s Employee and Manager Assistance Programs
- Working Well www.comcare.gov.au
- APS Integrated Leadership System Framework
- APSC Strengthening the Performance Framework Project.
Other relevant information sheets:
- 3. Talking about mental health
- 7. Managing employees throughout their career
- 11. Role clarity for good mental health
- 16. Focusing on ability to work
1 WorkCover Western Australia 2000, Occupational Stress: Factors that Contribute to its Occurrence and Effective Management, report prepared by E Kendall, P Murphy, V O’Neill & S Bursnall, WorkCover WA, Shenton Park, p. 61; and Comcare 2008, Working Well: An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury, 2nd edn, Comcare, Canberra, p. 20.