The depressing facts about mental health and performance reviews

Employees need support to cope with stress

Anika manages a customer service centre for a major retailer that recently amalgamated with another firm. Because of the amalgamation and its emphasis on doing “more with less,” Anika’s workers are expected to handle a 30 per cent increase in calls, but her workforce has decreased by 15 per cent.

It’s performance evaluation time for Anika. Her boss, a harried middle manager, noticed a downward slide in Anika’s performance in the last six months but he said nothing, partly because he has been busy with other things, partly because he hoped it might sort itself out, partly because he felt he could deal with it at Anika’s performance evaluation.

The problem didn’t sort itself out. Anika leaves the performance interview devastated. She has been subjected to a litany of what she considers accusations — her decision-making has been criticized, her absenteeism was raised, she was told she isn’t committed to the firm. When she tries to cite the stress she is under, her manager says, “try doing my job for a week if you want to see what stress is.”

Anika’s performance slides lower, she doesn’t have the emotional concentration to job-hunt, and three months later the firm considers terminating her, despite her past reputation as a go-getter manager and her encyclopedic knowledge of customer service in her industry.

Anika is a typical example of millions of employees suffering from occupational stress. For Anika, it has gone beyond stress. She suffers from clinical depression. She is one of roughly 10 per cent of employees with a significant functional impairment resulting from a mental illness caused or exacerbated by workplace stress.

The Canadian Mental Health Association identifies nine signs that an employee may be depressed:

•an increasing difficulty making decisions;

•a decrease in productivity;

•an inability to concentrate;

•a decline in dependability;

•an unusual increase in errors in work;

•proneness to accidents;

•frequent lateness and increased sick days;

•an uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for work; or

•personality or behavioural changes that appear out of character.

What is interesting is that the items on this list are all things likely to be raised in performance evaluations.

In Anika’s company, performance evaluation was poorly conceived, administered by managers who were themselves under stress and who hated doing performance reviews in the first place. Managers were expected to produce report cards on employees, not guidance toward better performance or helping remove barriers to good performance. In short, performance evaluation had no element of performance support.

Many firms, large and small, public sector and private, face a convergence of two trends that make performance support essential. The first trend is increased workplace stress, stemming from leaner workforces.

Unfortunately leaner often means meaner, yet studies have shown that mergers, acquisitions and downsizing yield a legacy of disabled workforces for longer than anyone might have expected.

The second trend is a projected shortage of experienced trained personnel in many trades, professions and occupations.

Gone are the days when a firm can say, “If we lose a widget-maker, we can hire another.” So their performance management processes need to reorient towards helping, not merely judging.

Many firms do this remarkably well. Others do not, remaining embedded in a Darwinian sense of “survival of the fittest,” espousing a “shape up or ship out” mentality that equates support with coddling, and that believes coddling ruins the bottom line. But there are other bottom lines. In the January 2001 report Mental Health in the Workplace: an Issue For One in Five Employees (written by Minnesota’s Citizens League for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services), the authors note:

•A recent International Labour Organization study shows a loss of 200 million working days per year in the U.S. from clinical depression, amounting to US$23 billion in lost workdays since 1990.

•A corporate study showed psychological disorders generated 60 per cent of employee absences from work

Fortunately, employee assistance programs have helped. They give firms the option of referrals to help, not just warnings and reprimands. Many large firms have in-house EAPs, and smaller firms often purchase services from external EAP providers.

However, blending EAPs into the company support mix can be difficult — partly because the concept of “mental illness” is stigmatizing. Many employees hide their inner anxieties and depression for fear of embarrassment, of seeming vulnerable or closing off pathways to promotion. No one wants to attend a performance support meeting to be told, “You are mentally ill. Let us help.” Any manager who evaluates the performance of others should be trained to do it with sensitivity and to use it for support, not merely to generate report cards.

EAPs, though an important part of the support array, are not alone sufficient. Many firms will deal with the stress without dealing with the stressors — things in the organization that cause stress in the first place. Not all stress is bad and not all stressors are avoidable, but most firms will not know which stressors are good, which are neutral and which are bad unless they conduct a “stress audit” to understand how the emotional life of their company really operates.

Having done an audit, the company is in a better position to remove non-essential stressors (and most companies are full of nonsense stressors, from pointless reporting and data-gathering to communications systems that carry noise better than they carry useful content).

In a nutshell, any firm that doesn’t want to write off one-tenth of its workforce should:

•develop a performance support culture, not just performance evaluation;

•include an employee assistance program in its performance support portfolio (any local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association can help you gauge the importance of mental health-inclusive EAPs, and connect you with EAP resources);

•be sure anyone conducting performance support processes is trained and motivated to do it with sensitivity; and

•deal with stressors, not just stresses, by completing a stressor audit, engaging employees in defining stressors and moving on to removing unproductive stressors.

Most of all — remember a mental health problem is not a predictor of failure. Some of the world’s greatest leaders have had mental health problems and transcended them — witness the U.S. Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, who experienced a “nervous collapse” early in the war but who became one of its greatest military strategists.

And Sherman knew the virtues of support among those experiencing problems in the workplace. Describing his friendship with his superior, Ulysses S. Grant (who experienced alcoholism), Sherman said: “Well, Grant, you supported me when I was crazy — and I supported you when you were drunk.”

John Butler is president of the Agora Group, a Markham, Ont.-based HR and health care management consulting firm. He can be reached at (905) 294-9762.

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