Mental Health in the Workplace

Managing underperformance and mental health problems

In some cases, managing mental health problems can be complicated by underperformance issues. These situations are often very difficult for supervisors and employees, particularly if an employee takes time off work with stress or another mental health problem while they are being disciplined or having their performance managed.

As with many issues in the workplace or elsewhere, prevention is better than cure. Problems such as these are less likely to happen if job roles and objectives are clear, appropriate training is provided, communication between a supervisor and an employee is effective and any concerns about performance and behaviour are addressed informally at an early stage.

Key issues

  • In many cases, reasons for poor performance are not well explored, even when a mental health issue is suspected.
  • This may be because of misunderstanding or a view that an employee is using a mental health problem as an ‘excuse’.
  • If the causes are not addressed the problem is likely to become worse and may result in long-term sickness absence.

While individual situations vary widely, there are some guidelines that you can follow to help manage these issues:

Do’s and don’ts


  • as far as possible, attempt to explore the reasons for poor performance, particularly when a mental health problem is known or suspected
  • give employees an opportunity to disclose any health problems that might be impacting on their performance but keep discussions focused on work issues
  • approach discussions in a nonjudgmental way, asking simple questions about whether anything is affecting the employee’s performance
  • if an employee discloses a mental health problem, consider and agree on any reasonable adjustments and how these might be implemented
  • where possible, provide support and make reasonable adjustments before following formal performance management procedures
  • consider allowing the employee to be supported in meetings by a trade union representative, mental health advocate, colleague or someone who understands their mental health problem
  • use mediation to resolve conflict if necessary
  • in cases where both formal performance management and sickness absence/return-to-work processes are being followed at the same time, try and keep these separately focused
  • make sure policies and procedures are clearly explained so employees know what to expect


  • ask intrusive questions or force the person to disclose health issues
  • make assumptions about how a mental health issue affects an employee
  • regard employees with suspicion or make assumptions about whether the mental health problem or sickness absence is ‘genuine’. Some employees with mental health problems are very sensitive to this and it can make interactions very difficult

The type of language you use when having conversations about performance can help to avoid conflict. Telling a person that they “should”, “need”, “must” or “ought to” do something can make them feel threatened. Rather than saying “You must do X” it can be better to say “I prefer that you do X”.

Useful links

Fair Work Australia’s guide to managing underperformance

Useful Links – Click the logo to visit the website

"In so many cases, managers or colleagues, they might think that there's a problem but they avoid it, they don't ask early enough. So by the time they do have the conversation, it's really difficult - people are on the back foot and it can get hostile. Managers need to be more proactive and have these conversations earlier. You can keep it low key, just check in with the person, ask them if they are getting the support they need."
HR Manager
*not her real name
"If someone broke their arm we wouldn't be worrying about whether or not we were liable, we'd just send them to the doctor. It should be the same for mental health problems."
OHS Manager
* not his real name
"Some employers think that if they accept that there is a problem, then that means they are accepting liability. Sometimes that stops them helping get employees into treatment. Actually they would be better off getting the person into treatment early - that's likely to reduce the risk of a stress claim. I recommend that where they can, employers offer to pay for two sessions of treatment without considering issues of liability."
Occupational Physician
*not her real name