If an employee enters the workplace with a fractured leg or flu most of their colleagues will show concern and do their best to help the person recover from their illness. The employer will also consider granting leave to the employee to recover fully and get back to work in a healthy condition. However, what happens if the employee has depression, anxiety or any other mental illness? Will colleagues and employers react the same way? Maybe not –  because, unlike physical illness, mental illness is not easily visible.

The signs of mental illness can often be noticed in employee behaviour and performance. Some symptoms of mental illness can manifest themselves as poor performance at work, missing deadlines, failing to get work done, disappearing for long periods of time, being prone to sudden outbursts, erratic behaviour, irritation or attention disorder. However, these are often overlooked either because of lack of knowledge or because of the stigma attached to mental health issues.

The stigma attached to having a psychiatric disorder means that employees may be reluctant to seek treatment, especially in the current economic climate, out of fear that they might jeopardise their jobs. At the same time, managers may want to help but many aren’t sure how to do so.

As a result, mental health disorders often go unrecognised and untreated, not only damaging an individual’s health and career but also reducing productivity at work. Adequate treatment, on the other hand, can alleviate symptoms for the employee and improve job performance. But accomplishing these aims requires a shift in attitudes about the nature of mental disorders and the recognition that such a worthwhile achievement takes effort and time.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that one in four individuals globally suffers some sort of mental disorder at some point in their lives. Around 20% of people all over the world go through a major depressive disorder, and around 350 million suffer from depression. Regardless of whether you acknowledge it, these stats imply that at least one person on your team is living with a mental illness right now. Even more concerning is the fact suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year-olds worldwide.

In 1991, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution for “the protection of the person with mental illness and improvement of mental health care”, to create awareness about mental illness and help those affected. But simultaneously, many corporations are sacking their employees due to under-performance, especially in developing countries. This is an indicator that there is still work to be done in spreading awareness and the understanding of mental health in the workplace, and of the importance of prioritising employee well-being at work.

There is a clear business case for companies to prioritise these issues. The monetary impact of the decision to sack employees increases a company’s overall turnover cost. Studies on the cost of employee turnover predict that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs 6- 9 months’ salary on average. Many employers argue that this cost is less compared to losses from under-performing employees, and because of long-term benefits, replacement of the employee is worth the turnover cost. However,  if businesses invest in employee mental well-being, they would not only help employees recover, but also increase the productivity of the business and avoid the turnover cost. Fostering good mental health also helps create a more inclusive and positive culture within the company, and furthers the corporate social responsibility cause which many companies value.

Steps that companies can take to ensure better work culture and help deal with the problem are as follows:

1. Know the cause of the problem

Knowing the symptoms of employee mental illness is important in order to tackle the problem. Poor performance is one of the results of mental illness, and must not be confused with misconduct. Misconduct is very serious behaviour such as theft or assault which may warrant instant dismissal. The reality is that poor performance can also prompt employers to take similar actions and dismiss the employee without looking more deeply into the problem. Instead, the cause of the problem must be looked into with an open mind in order to deal with it effectively.

2. Communicate without judgement

Managers need to be aware of their assumptions and judgements about an employee’s behaviour. While assumptions or judgements are part of human behaviour, taking a neutral approach when responding to an employee’s behaviour and communicating with them will build trust, and enable a more honest discussion about the root cause of a performance issue. If you’re a manager, focus on fostering a safe environment where people can talk about these sorts of issues.

3. Foster supportive performance management

When mental health issues, such as chronic stress, burnout, anxiety or depression are present, performance management needs to be especially supportive and clear. Supportive performance management focuses on the intended outcomes rather than the problem. For example instead of saying “This report is full of errors,” you might say, “We need this report to be error-free. What do you need to make that happen?” This makes the conversation feel less like criticism and more like a collaboration focused on a solution. Many employees can and do work while experiencing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, with little impact on productivity. Of course, like any illness, there are situations in which the individual is not able to work due to the severity of the condition. However, in the majority of cases, supportive performance management can be the key to continued productivity.

4.Train and encourage employees

Train employees and encourage them to enhance and sustain mental well being through workshops and programs guided by experts in the domain. Just like jogging, walking and going to the gym is encouraged for physical well being, there are tools for mental well being such as guided meditation, “an hour of power”, etc. which can be taught in companies.

5. Make employee mental well being a corporate goal

Employee well being is a corporate social responsibility which most businesses fail to recognise. This is because as we practically analyse the situation, we realise that managing mental health problems can be complicated by poor performance issues.

Research says that poor performance issues with employees suffering from mental health conditions 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. Managing a poor performing employee is 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. However if a corporate-level goal is set by the organisation to prioritise mental health, managers can be given as standard the appropriate training to recognise and effectively deal with these issues within their team, and even preempting issues by following steps to prevent mental health conditions from becoming critical.

There is a clear business case for companies to better understand and support employees living with mental health conditions. Not only can they profit from reducing staff turnover costs and improving productivity and employee engagement – they can also fulfil their social responsibilities by re-imagining the workplace as an inclusive and trusting environment, and eradicating the stigma around mental health issues which millions of workers face today.


Sanjana Rathi is a student on the MSc Management of Information Systems and Digital Innovation in the Department of Management at LSE. Having done undergraduate studies in Computer Engineering and a Diploma in Cyber Law, she hopes to pursue a career in the field of Technology Policy and Management in the future.