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Depressed, or just lazy and unmotivated – how do you spot the difference at work?

Mental illness will be experienced by at least one in five of us this year. The most common mental illnesses will be anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. If you have a company of 200 people this means at least 40 employees will be attempting to function at work whilst experiencing some serious challenges in regard to their mental health.

We have become almost obsessed with managing and measuring performance in the workplace. Is this contributing to a mentally healthy workplace? The answer is “it depends” on our leadership approach.

If a leader is good at what they do, it might, because the team will have pride in their identity and their achievements, and be willing to accept constructive feedback at all times.

If they are terrible at what they do, their clumsy attempts at managing performance will most certainly aggravate stress triggers and responses among their staff, and in some cases exacerbate mental health problems with some of the more vulnerable staff members who are living with a pre-existing mental illness.
So how do we recognise the difference between poor performance from a disengaged employee, and poor performance from someone who is trying to cope with a very challenging situation in terms of their mental health?

Good leadership is the key to answering this question. A leader (be it a manager or a co-worker) who can communicate well and build trust, and who has strong empathy for people and can encourage and support someone experiencing difficulty, will recognise that we don’t really know for sure what people are thinking or feeling on the inside. We have to earn their trust so that they feel quite comfortable sharing this with us when we ask them how they are doing.

So does this mean building your brand as a good leader before performance management is required? The evidence seems to point in this direction. People are less likely to disclose mental illness if they fear an unfavourable response. If we don’t have someone’s trust, they won’t tell us what we need to know before we decide on the right approach to managing their performance. The result – we lose good people that we didn’t need to, and we put up with others that we shouldn’t have to.

Good practice encourages us to differentiate between providing appropriate support to someone struggling to cope with the effects of a mental illness, and managing poor performance. First separate out the impact of this struggle before getting into the issue of managing poor performance. At the end of the day, we can only do the best we can in this regard. It is often the most complex situation a manager can face, so building on our understanding of mental health as well as understanding the law and our legal responsibilities as an employer, are key to success

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