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Dealing with Performance and Mental Health issues at Work; as easy as falling off a ladder?

Why are physical injuries in the workplace seen as an organisational responsibility, yet time lost to performance or mental health issues are more often a personal responsibility?

Consider your workplace where working days lost to physical injury are targeted to zero. Now imagine a target to achieving zero days lost to mental health or performance issues. Sadly not yet, and now the latest report reveals that 1/3 sick notes are for mental health problems. Disciplinaries, grievances, performance issues and tribunal claims are all increasing too.

In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health and 1 in 4 people are estimated to suffer from a mental health issue each year.

These are major work issues. It is now being talked about and the government has pledged to tackle it with the Mental Health and Workplace review.

You will note from these statistics that this is a great many people and you will interact with many of them on a daily basis. You may also be aware of these people being subject to performance related interventions; performance improvement plans, disciplinary or grievance processes which can be extremely harmful if badly managed and place additional stress on those involved and in many cases see these individuals being signed off with work related stress.

Looking at the safety culture in organisations there is a high focus on managing days lost to physical injury. When a work place injury happens then formal processes kick in to establish the cultural antecedents to the accident and a management process put in place to ensure something similar does not happen again. This is therefore seen and proactively tackled as an organisational issue.

Fall off a ladder. It is an acute issue, happening in a fraction of a second, with a relatively clear cause and very clear effect. We would assess and then establish the organisational reasons behind the ladder placement (what work was needing to be performed), the employee’s competence for being on the ladder (qualified, authorised, and experienced enough to be there) and what triggered the fall (perhaps the safest approach wasn’t the easiest for a time pressed operator?). In this instance we are able to treat the cause (rather than the symptom) so as hopefully to avoid reoccurrence. Performance issues, disciplinaries, grievances and mental health issues on the contrary are chronic and creep up on a person and organisation often over a very long period of time. The cause is anything but clear and probably multifactorial, so the most straight forward approach is to treat the symptom (the individuals involved) as the cause and hope there is a long enough period before the next one.

When an individual is signed off for work related stress or mental health issues, previously unforeseen, this is not always considered in the same way as a physical injury, it is perhaps a failing in the individual or something personal that they need to deal with privately, or with the support of the company Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or through their private medical provision. Perhaps it is seen as a failing in the recruitment process that selected someone not up to the job or not resilient enough. It is highly unlikely that a process kicks in to establish the organisational antecedents that led to the behaviour or performance issue.

Imagine a situation where a serious accident occurs in the workplace resulting in the employee needing time off work anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months with significant company investment in treatment costs and return to work plans, but only for the employee to be told it was their fault as they have a predisposition to being clumsy. It simply wouldn't happen now. The organisational review similar to the ladder fall illustration above would kick in. And yet the result may be exactly this for those who suffer a mental health issue.

This paradox is interesting, especially as pressures rise, expectations increase, along with performance issues, putting growing burdens on businesses and HR teams.

If you speak to a line manager, HR or talent lead about performance issues they encounter and have to manage, chances are they will be able to point to a number of triggers in the organisational history that led up to the moment things became formal. Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers references the seven minor errors in and of themselves which are nothing more than an annoyance but together result in a catastrophic incident.

Write down the numbers 1-7 on a piece of paper and think of one of these people, it might be a friend, colleague, employee or line manager, and list out some contributing factors in the environment or organisation culture. I suspect you will have listed things to do with having difficult conversations, organisational changes, line management expectations or capabilities, workload pressures, or roles that have unknowingly changed to both the employee and their line manager. All these are powerful antecedents and will have reinforcing effects on the individual resulting in a behaviour, either wanted or unwanted.

You may not be aware but the HSE details a set of Management Standards in relation to a cultural environment that when healthily managed, also manages the risks of work related stress. There are six key standards; demands such as workload and work patterns, control and say over the work being done, support provided by the organisation, relationships, role clarity, and how organisational change is managed. For those familiar with Employee Engagement surveys you will note that these six HSE Management Standards are often contained within the Engagement Survey categories, but yet the links are often not made and a review of such scores could reveal some interesting insights and correlations to the number of performance issues being managed.

If the HSE required a mental health investigation into the organisation as well as a workplace assessment and safety requirements we might see a growth in organisational responsibility for mental health as well as physical health. If so then processes and employment law might shift their attention from the individuals involved to the organisational culture in which they have become a part.

There is now much greater discussion about mental health in organisations, mental health absence days, and mental health first aid is growing and will I’m sure eventually be considered as important as physical first aid. However I fundamentally believe that organisational and team cultures are easily powerful enough to override and influence most employees’ normal behaviours and as a result any unexpected aberrations in a culture; either in its structures or processes will eventually feed into individual behaviours which can and do have powerful consequences.

To discuss the content of this article in greater detail or to discuss your own situation if this resonates with your organisational needs, please contact the author at

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