Help me help a staff member with mental health and performance problems
April 24, 2014 5:49 AM   Subscribe

One of my team has been absent from work for the past month with mental health issues (details over the fold). They will be returning to work next week, and I'd like to be a good boss and support this return as best I can - while still keeping a functioning team and taking on some of the performance issues that were present before they left. Your recommendations and experiences please?

The person concerned became ill while I was away on holidays. When I came back, all I could learn from folks at work was that she had started to suffer side effects from medication about a week after I left, and had taken time off to recover from these and transition to a new medication. In some emails I receved from her subsequently she also told me this.

As part of discussing how she would return to work (she's now been away about 6 weeks), we met up this morning and she revealed that she has had depression all of her adult life which was not treated until about 10 years ago. She had started to react to the medication she was taking (don't know what it is), and attempted suicide in mid-March (this was the fourth time she had tried to take her own life, but it had been five years since the last attempt).

She has been seeing a psychiatrist weekly since then, and has transitioned to a new medication which she says is making her feel much better and back on balance. She has discussed returning to work with her psych and doctor and they have agreed that it will help her get back to "normal". She appears to have a supportive group of people around her, including health professionals and her husband.

I'm happy to support her returning to work and I'm honored that she trusted me enough to tell me what was going on. However, before all this happened, I had a number of issues with her performance in the workplace which I was only part-way to tackling. The work she produced was great, but she avoided responsibility for making decisions, wouldn't ever step up to fill a gap, wasn't providing development opportunities to those she supervised and letting them learn, and generally always wanted to be on 'special projects' where she didn't have to work with others rather than taking on more of the routine work (she occasionally got paranoid about particular people, not me, thinking they were out to get her). These had been flagged with her but not tackled in any depth.

I'm now feeling woefully inadequate to support her like a decent human being should, but also to do my duty as a manager (and to other team members) and tackle the performance issues.

I'd like to hear from MeFites who have experience in any or all of the above - have you returned to work after a major mental health problem? What helped and what didn't? Have you been in the same position as a manger? Do you know of some stuff I should read?
(the HR area has been less than helpful and all the advice they have given is basically, cover your ass, cover the organisation's ass, document everything, don't get us sued).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like you should give her a few weeks to see whether the performance issues remain, perhaps with a gentle reminder that they're still on your radar.
posted by katrielalex at 6:02 AM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I suffer from depression and I have had my meds kick out on me. My issue wasn't attempting suicide, but rather zero ambition, very little productivity, too many sick days, and work quality below what I normally produce. My doctor was actually trying to get me to take a leave of absence but I didn't. The fact that I knew my work was suffering was making my depression even worse, and I had a great deal of anxiety over what my supervisor must think of me, how I was surely going to get fired, how my co-workers surely thought I was an idiot, etc. And the longer I went, seeing myself struggle more and more and get more behind in my work, the worse my anxiety got, which made the work worse, lather rinse repeat.

I eventually had to level with my supervisor (who I trust and respect very much) about what was going on. I told her what had been happening, why my work hadn't been up to snuff. She of course had noticed that my work wasn't up to par and she had been confused over it because I usually perform very very well etc. She had zero experience with depression, she didn't know what it meant of the kinds of things I was going through, but she was incredibly kind and supportive. She thanked me for telling her, both so that she understood (vs. wondering if I was just turning in to a slacker or something) and so that she could help. She asked what I needed and what she could do to help me (reduced work load, extra help, weekly check-in meetings, whatever). I told her that I didn't want a reduced work load or anything like that, but more frequent progress report type meetings would probably help, so we started that. She also allowed me an adjusted work schedule (starting an hour earlier and ending the day an hour later) so that I could go to the gym, something that helps to level my mood.

Just talking with her, no longer feeling like a huge failure at work, ... that helped a lot. And before too long my meds kicked back in and I got back to a normal level of work.

So my suggestion is to reassure her that she isn't going to get fired, but then work out a plan that will help her to get back on track and perform at a better level. You can be clear with her about what areas you're looking to address, she should still be accountable for that, but maybe offer regular off-the-books "So how have you been doing with this, that, the other?" talks with her to help guide her towards achieving those goals.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:08 AM on April 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

Let her adjust evaluate her work now on good medication and then bring it up. And just treat her like a regular employee. Don't treat her with kid gloves. If the performance issues continue its eventually going to cost her the job regardless. Treat her seriously and give her all the proper warning and documentation. Don't be overly gentle or nice because it WILL send mix signals about how much of a priority it is to change.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:26 AM on April 24, 2014

If you are in the US, your employee is probably eligible for ADA accommodations for her depression and HR should have mentioned this (beyond "don't get us sued"). It may be helpful for her if you sit down with her and come up with a written plan of what kind of reasonable changes to her job will help her perform better. It will also be helpful for your company, as it will help you distinguish between "genuine performance issues" and "disability-related difficulties."

The Job Accommodation Network has some resources for ideas for accommodation for mental health issues, including depression.
posted by epanalepsis at 6:50 AM on April 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

It’s hard to say exactly what you should do without knowing more about what you already do to address employee performance problems.

The same rules that apply to good management practices apply here. Review her job description - make sure the performance problems fall within the scope of her job. Are you both clear in her primary and secondary duties? Discussions about performance issues should be very specific. The problems you describe may seem self-evident and obvious to you, but "step up to fill a gap" may seem ambiguous to an employee. If my boss were to point this out to me, I'd want to know what gaps I'm expected to fill, when I should fill them and when I should defer to someone else to focus on my core responsibilities. Ambiguity + supervisor/supervisee power imbalance = lots of anxiety that can make problems much worse. Even moreso with an employee struggling with a mental health problem. One thing I love about my current boss is that I never have to guess and what she's trying to tell me and she's always available and willing to clarify questions.

Don't be afraid to give direct orders. As in I want so and so to take the lead on X thing. I need them to have whatever experience. Be available for questions but otherwise don't intervene.

If her performance is seriously lagging, perhaps arrange weekly meetings to review progress and brainstorm solutions. I don't think it's a particularly good idea leave these conversations to quarterly or annual reviews to a struggling staff member.

Avoid double binds. If the expectation is for her to step back with other staff, make sure she isn't unreasonably responsible for that person's mistakes. If she or any other staff member is required to make independent decisions, the organization should also have processes in place to help staff fine tune their judgment/decision making skills. Frequent reviews of ‘this worked and why ’ and ‘this didn’t work, how can we do it differently?’ might be helpful. For every performance issue, ask yourself and your bosses if staff have the resources, time, and training necessary to meet expectations.

If she is "paranoid" about others, help keep her focused on specific behavior. "What are they doing and saying to make you believe this or that." Offer to intervene if the behavior is actually problematic, otherwise ask her if she has ideas on how to bracket her fear to get the work done.

If you can give her more opportunities to work where she shines without compromising her job/the organization, do so.

Your job is to support her in doing her job, it's not to support her in managing her depression. At the same time, approaching problems with a "you can do this, I have confidence in you" spirit" might help both.
posted by space_cookie at 7:26 AM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a two-pronged approach, and everything needs to be run through HR to make sure that there aren't any issues that you're stepping into:

1. At first, let her come back and get her feet back under the desk. Just like any employee who has been out for a significant amount of time. Perhaps meet with her early that day for an hour or two to bring her up to speed on anything she may have missed while she was out, and then come up with a temporary plan for her to get back in the saddle. Ask her if she needs any special accomodations, and if so, try within the boundaries of common sense, and HRs to accomodate her.

2. After she's back, bring her back into the office for a status check. Confirm that she's comfortable with the workload, ask if she has any concerns, praise her for the things she's done that are praiseworthy, acknowledge areas where you'd like to see improvement.

BTW, you should be having 1:1 with everyone at least semi-monthly. We all need praise and direction, so you should do this with all of your direct reports.

If her work continues to be sub-par, you need to re-visit with HR and the employee, in a formal setting. If she needs to go on a performance plan, then so be it. But HR needs to help you make that call because under ADA, there could be issues and minefields of which you are unaware.

Good luck, you sound like a mench and that goes a LONG way towards helping folks comeback from mental health issues.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:31 AM on April 24, 2014

HR has put you in a tough spot. To protect your own job and interests I would go back to HR and get explicit instruction (in writing) about their expectations of YOU and how the law affects your choices. I have been in many meetings like you describe and you need to be aware of your personal and organasiational liabilities.
posted by saucysault at 8:27 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few things I would suggest (and as usual, I am not your lawyer, and I am not your HR rep).

1. Talk to your HR rep again about accommodations and job expectations.
It sure sounds like you're not getting nearly enough information from them and you have to demand this information, or you will be under quite a bit of liability. HR needs to coordinate with you as to whether you need to make accommodations for this employee. She seems to be a "qualified individual with a disability" per ADA, in part because you, her supervisor, regard her as having one, but HR needs to review and confirm that. Talk to HR and discuss whether HR considers her to be an employee with a disability, and whether you legally need to provide accommodations like allowing her to work from home, having a flexible schedule, taking on different kinds of assignments, et cetera. The law (ADA) requires your company to provide these sorts of reasonable accommodations if she has a qualifying disability.

The HR rep also needs to sit down with you and communicate with you about your employee's job description and about expected performance for employees with that job description. Do your ideas about her need for performance improvements match her job description and what HR expects from her? If you find her performance lacking and you try to fire her without handling this piece, you and the company could be in a world of legal trouble.

2. Talk to the employee regularly.
Set up one on one meetings with her weekly, and get some regular meetings going with you, her, and an HR rep to discuss accommodations and how well they are working. Focus on accommodations and performance, not on her personal life and the details of her disability. In my experience, you really don't want to know that information. Knowing it is a liability. In my experience, you want to stay focused on the job, and how her disability affects the job. That will be hard, as it sounds like she's looking for a friend... but bosses and employees aren't friends as I'm sure you know.

3. Consider your other employees.
They don't seem to show up anywhere in your question (I can understand why, but still, they need to be considered). Bottom line, you're going to need to cultivate a "culture of fairness" with those employees. Unless you have a team full of saints, you are almost guaranteed to have an employee or two who is going to find all this "unfair." Why is she getting different treatment? How come she gets paid $50,000 and I get paid $50,000, and we're both Widget Creation Specialists, but I have to do more work, and I can't work from home like she can?

Obviously you can't discuss her disability with them, for legal and ethical reasons. But what you can do, right now, is two things. A, acknowledge when your other employees have to pick up the slack, and tell them you appreciate them helping out. B, make sure to take their contributions into account when making recommendations for raises and promotions, and make sure to document their contributions on their annual reviews. That will help make things feel "fair."

It sounds like you really care about this situation and want it to go well, but remember... you're an employer, not a charity. You're her boss, not her friend or family member. You want to help her do well, but you owe your allegiance to your company first in this situation. Thanks to our laws, as you protect your company, you can also create some accommodations to help her succeed. Just make sure to work with HR to create a clearly documented plan that works within the law, or there could be some big consequences for you and your team in the future.

Best of luck. I know this is a dicey thing to deal with, and it sounds like you're an awesome manager!
posted by Old Man McKay at 8:50 AM on April 24, 2014

Meet with HR to review policies and procedures on reasonably accommodating a person's disability. Meet with returning staff member to discuss reasonably accommodating the disability. Be caring and concerned, but also work with her to develop a plan for how work will get done. I would discourage the over-sharing (suicide attempt) and encourage ongoing communication about what she needs to be productive.
posted by theora55 at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2014

I've been through this on both sides. This is just my experience without the HR/legal perspective. I had an employee take a 12 weeks of medical leave for psychiatric treatment. Before that, she'd had numerous performance issues and lots of sick time. The best thing I did was gently detach from being the "shoulder" by hearing the personal details of her situation and stick with a sympathetic -- but still managerial -- role. I felt like we made reasonable accommodations for her (shifting hours so she could start later in the day, for example).

She came back specifically wanting less work, longer deadlines, shorter hours and wanted this as a permanent change. It was completely understandable, because the job was too stressful for her, even properly medicated. We needed someone who could take more work, and perform under shorter deadlines. Others that she worked with needed to be treated fairly. The needs for the position were all discussed in depth when she was first hired. It just wasn't a good fit anymore. Fortunately, we didn't have to look at termination because she quit about two months after she returned. As suggested by others, we documented and detailed everything before she left and from the day she returned and gave her detailed feedback on what was expected. We had one-on-one discussions once a week.

I wasn't cold about it. I've been in her situation and have taken brief times off (a few days days when I have problems with psych meds or in very low points). By when I come back, I work harder and am very aware that I should take on more in order to help the team and not make it anyone else's problem. If I couldn't fulfill the responsibilities, I would have to leave.

I echo the previous comments and say keep it about the work. Be supportive, be warm and understanding -- but keep it about the work and document everything.
posted by bluemoonegg at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to remind you that you have rights, too, including the right to set boundaries about how much of your subordinate's detailed medical history you want to be looped in on. I would suggest requesting that HR run more interference here, including giving your employee guidance on workplace etiquette re: disclosing the details of her illness. My sense is that you've been put in a pretty dicey position here due to her oversharing; and while it's of course good to be compassionate toward your co-worker, it will do more harm than good to encourage too much discussion of her health specifics.
posted by nacho fries at 3:14 PM on April 24, 2014

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