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Discussing performance with an employee with depression

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees dealing with depression.

An employee that I manage is on a performance improvement plan but has been signed off from work for depression the last few weeks. How should I approach the next performance conversation? Their performance has not improved since the last one and I need to let them know this, whilst being sensitive and understanding about their mental health struggles.

Our first therapist suggests...

Manage performance, facilitate support

When your team member comes back to work you should approach the performance conversation in the same way as you would normally whilst acknowledging their mental health challenges and recognising that they may need support to help them deal with that.

Think in terms of you being in control of managing the performance part of the equation, but being a facilitator of providing help for anything else.

It is a fine line to tread when someone is struggling with their mental health but it is dangerous to assume that trying to avoid difficult topics will necessarily be the best approach. Sometimes that can make matters worse.

When someone reports fit for work you have a duty to make sure you are managing them to the expectations you have set whilst fulfilling your duty of care to them in making sure that you are not doing anything that might jeopardise their mental health.

It might be worth separating the conversation into two parts.

First, talk about what you can do to support them while they are working to overcome their depression. his might mean giving them time to attend therapy, changing work schedules temporarily, being more flexible about working hours, or adjusting timelines. Do whatever you can that feels reasonable to support their recovery.

Then you can talk about the performance plan and make any changes or adjustments that might now make sense in the context of the conversation you’ve had about their depression.

The goal doesn’t need to change. You still need to get them back to level of performance that is acceptable, but you might need to be more flexible and patient in your approach in order to get there.

If you can achieve this balance you will help your team member to get back to a higher performance level which will no doubt increase their confidence and help them in  overcoming their depression.

Having access to next-day therapy sessions can help employees to address poor mental heath and build resilience.
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Our second therapist suggests...

Make reasonable adjustments

If they are on a Performance Improvement Plan, I’m wondering if part of that plan includes adjustments or new ways that this person can do their work more effectively at this time, rather than expecting improved performance using the same methods.

There are a few things you can do to show that you are sensitive to what they are experiencing:

  • Listen: before any plans are made or reviewed, take time to hear what they are going through. This may be a very scary time for them and as frustrating to them as it is to the company. This may be the first time they have experienced poor mental health and may be struggling with this different way of being in the world.
  • Make sure they’re aware of the person they need to speak to within the business to arrange time off.
  • Don’t downplay their condition because it is mental health and not physical health (this sadly does happen).
  • If they are off work, be sure to check in at regular intervals. Don’t pressure the employee to come back to work.
  • If they are off work for a substantial amount of time, you may arrange a meeting with them to discuss getting them back into work (e.g. a phased return).
  • Consider any reasonable adjustments you can make to support their return or their performance (e.g. are the performance expectations realistic given their current health? If they feel too high, this may in itself cause more distress and hamper their capability.)
  • Longer term, you can refer them to occupational health to assess their current capability and look at suggested adjustments.
  • If you have access to therapy paid for by your company, remind them that this is available and a great option to take up.

You may need more regular check-ins than you previously held in order to check what is and what isn’t working and also to let the employee know you are by their side.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips for managers

You want to know how to talk about employee performance in a sensitive way for your employee who is depressed.

The following guidance should help:

  • Ensure that your employee does not feel under pressure to return to work. They should only return to work when they feel able to.
  • Ask the employee what recommendations the GP has made for them when they return and aim to have this in writing.
  • Ask the employee what they think would help them if they are planning to return to work. Are any workplace issues leading to depression? Things like long work hours, bullying, poor communication, and inadequate training may cause depression. Does the employee need any adjustments in the workplace? If requests are reasonable, aim to meet them. This may be things like a reduced workload or shorter working hours.
  • Follow any company guidance around managing sickness.
  • When talking about performance, allow the employee to provide information about what impacts their performance. It makes sense that if someone is depressed they may not be performing well. You do not need to have immediate answers here. There may be things that you need to look into more before planning a way forward with the employee. Be mindful of competency issues and if more training is needed.
  • Continue to check in with the employee if they return to work and encourage the employee to be open with you about how they feel and their needs.
  • Know the signs that someone is struggling and don’t be afraid to respond with curiosity. Low mood may manifest as issues around productivity, lateness, relational difficulties, and withdrawal.

It can be complicated and emotionally challenging supporting someone who is depressed. Consider your own self-care and what you need to feel balanced.

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Download our depression support guide for managers

Use our support guide to understand and recognise symptoms of depression in your employees, and put in place some workplace adjustments to help them feel more comfortable and productive