According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
It is common knowledge that the pandemic has negatively impacted mental wellness, but the crisis had actually been going on long before COVID-19 entered the picture. In Singapore, a study conducted between 2016 and 2018 revealed that one in seven people has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime—an increase from an early study in 2010.
This is especially true in the workplace. Mental health struggles have always affected employee well-being and taken a toll on the profitability of businesses. In fact, according to the CDC,
- Approximately 80% of persons with depression reported some level of functional impairment because of their depression, and 27% reported serious difficulties in work and home life
- In a three-month period, patients with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity
- Depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of up to $44 billion
Whether a workplace is transitioning to a remote or hybrid setup, feelings of anxiety, stress, and burnout are amplified by the new realities of working from home and social isolation.
The constant fear of contracting the virus when returning to the office is also looming. Moreover, workers now take on more responsibilities, work longer hours, and have fewer opportunities to file for leaves due to their workload. These spell a huge problem.
Poor mental health and stress can negatively affect employees’ performance, productivity, engagement and communication, as well as their physical capabilities and daily functioning.
While companies are starting to see the importance of their well-being, one question lingers in the minds of HR professionals and company leaders:
Where do we draw the line between underperformance and mental health problems?
The link between underperformance and mental health
Managing the performance of an employee with a mental health condition is a sensitive and delicate matter. At one point or another, leaders will come face to face with this challenge.
It is difficult to tell if underperformance is attributed to low motivation, poor attitudes, or a mental health issue arising from either. When an underperforming employee takes time off work due to a mental health issue, it may also affect ongoing intervention such as disciplinary procedures or performance management efforts.
Truth is, employees can struggle with their mental health on a daily basis but leaders only become aware when investigating lapses. For any employee, performance and disciplinary management are stressful enough as it is. It goes without saying that those struggling with their mental health have a tougher time.
At that stage, leaders have to handle these signs of underperformance with the right combination of care and professionalism.
Here are some tips from my perspective as an HR leader.
1. Discuss issues relating to performance, not personality
When having difficult conversations with underperforming employees, focus on behaviours rather than traits or qualities.
In these stressful settings, the latter can make them feel personally attacked. Use specific examples of recent lapses and convey facts instead of judgement.
We can all agree that “there have been three missed deadlines this month” sounds less jarring than “you have been sloppy lately.”
2. Offer support and flexibility
If an employee discloses a mental health issue, it helps to brainstorm and come up with reasonable adjustments together.
Do they feel overwhelmed with work? Do you need to simplify their tasks? Can they benefit from a flexible schedule? Or do they need to take time off work altogether?
When asked the right questions, employees are less averse to asking for help. You can then come to a consensus on implementing these adjustments.
3. Devise a Performance Improvement Plan
As much as possible, leaders should provide support and exercise flexibility that might help underperforming employees meet the job’s standards.
When underperformance persists in spite of reasonable accommodation, a formalised performance management framework may be used as a last resort. Devising a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is one such way to do it.
According to SHRM, a PIP, also known as a Performance Action Plan, is a tool that gives employees with performance or behavioural issues the opportunity to succeed. To address recurring problems, goals are set to be achieved within a specified timeline.
Of course, this is a collaborative effort that should be agreed upon by both the employee and manager. Once it is implemented, the manager would monitor the employee to ensure he is making progress or discuss areas for further improvement.
Is a PIP always the answer?
Note that a PIP is not a way to start the termination process and should only be used when there is commitment from both parties.
If the employee is unable to commit to it, the manager would need to consider other appropriate measures such as disciplinary action. If the employee shows conviction but fails to meet goals and objectives within the timeline, the manager can consider extending the plan.
After all, a PIP is meant to help them succeed.
Tackling underperformance and mental health challenges
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic ends, mental health challenges will continue to impact employees and businesses. A silver lining is that organisations across the world have begun to acknowledge mental health support as a “must-have”—not a “nice to have”— for businesses to thrive.
While there isn’t a silver-bullet solution, there are ways for leaders to provide support. As with all things, prevention is better than cure. Hence, encouraging self-care practices and providing care for mental health would help mitigate the risks and create a thriving workforce.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, some common signs of those who are struggling with mental health issues include difficulty concentrating, extreme mood changes, strong feelings of irritability or anger, and difficulty understanding or relating to others.
It’s always better to address concerns about employees’ performance or mental health at an early stage. Our behavioural health coaches and licensed psychologists at Intellect are well-equipped to guide you on how to coach underperforming employees. Find out more here.