With Martin G. Moore

Episode #185

The Mental Health Minefield: How do you lead?

There’s an ever-increasing number of articles, blogs, and podcasts talking about the human cost of the Covid pandemic, in particular its impact on people’s mental health.

This is a really sensitive topic, but it’s an area where your leadership skills are going to be challenged repeatedly. Some of the trickiest situations for leaders arise when an employee who’s struggling with personal issues isn’t performing their job to the required standard.

How much latitude should you give to someone who’s having trouble functioning at work due to personal struggles and challenges? And should you always insist that people meet the standards of performance and behavior that are so critical in building a constructive, high-performance culture?

In this episode, I go out on a limb to give you some guidance on how to approach these rather delicate situations.

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Episode #185 The Mental Health Minefield: How do you lead?

I’ve been seeing an ever increasing number of articles talking about the human cost of the COVID pandemic in its impact on people’s mental health. Some of the trickiest situations for leaders arise when an employee who’s struggling personally is not performing their job to the required standard. This creates a leadership dilemma that can be incredibly difficult to resolve. How much latitude should you give someone who’s having trouble functioning at work due to personal struggles and challenges? And should you always insist that people meet the standards of performance and behavior that are so critical in building a constructive high performance culture?

This is a really sensitive topic, and one that many of you have no doubt faced in the last couple of years, but it’s an area where your leadership skills are going to be challenged repeatedly. So today, I’m going to go out on a limb to give you my two cents worth on how to approach these situations:

  • I’m going to open with a few stories to set the scene, and demonstrate how these delicate situations have played out during my career.

  • Then I’ll give you some basic rules of thumb that ensure you can handle your people with care while still keeping a firm hand on team performance.

So let’s get into it.

COVID has made it even harder for us to remain healthy mentally. The never ending ambiguity of what might happen next, rolling random lockdowns by governments of all flavors, the loneliness and isolation that many people experience during this time, and equally the stress of having to work in close confines with spouses and school aged children. Anxiety and depression are being reported in the U.S. at almost three times pre-pandemic levels. Now this is just as staggering as it is concerning. I’m not going to go into the causes of this dramatic increase, there’s already plenty written about it. The point for all of us as leaders though, is that in the short to medium term, you can expect to face many more situations where you find mental health issues to be commonplace at work.

Our natural tendency, when we hear the words mental health, is to immediately roll over. We step back, we handle with kid gloves and we avoid any confrontation with the individual who may claim to have issue or maybe suspected of having issues. This can often mean we don’t get the right outcome either for the organization or for the individual concerned. I want to be absolutely clear at the outset: if you know, or even suspect that someone is suffering from genuine mental health issues, you can’t leave it unaddressed. Your obligation and your duty of care as a leader is to see that the person gets appropriate help to the extent that you can influence them.

But sadly, for every person who does have a genuine health issue, there may be another hiding behind the veneer of mental health issues to avoid being held to account for the choices they make. Trying to work out which is which can be extraordinarily difficult. We need to have a way of putting this all into perspective so that we don’t forever default to the position of allowing people to do whatever they want for fear of tripping over a mental health issue. I want to describe a number of scenarios that I’ve faced in the past, just to give you a feel for the range and complexity issues that you’re likely to face. And I know that many of you will be facing these as we speak.


Now, the first example is one that’s as much about the leader as it is the individual involved. A middle manager, Chris, had made a mistake. It wasn’t a huge mistake, but it was noticed at the CEO level because it could have been a company level risk to our license to operate. So it was a big enough deal. The actual problem occurred as a result of unclear accountability for a critical compliance process. That lack of accountability led to this thing slipping through the cracks.

Now, the problem was resolved easily enough and no harm was done, ultimately. However, there was some blame shifting and finger pointing, as tends to happen in poor cultures where accountability is weak. And Chris had a completely disproportionate reaction. He left the office, purportedly due to the stress that he was under – which was a huge shock to me when I heard about it. But the weak and permissive leader that Chris reported to didn’t help. What she should have done was to help Chris turn this situation into an opportunity to increase his resilience. But instead she said, “Oh, Chris, take as much time off as you need. The most important thing is your wellbeing.” Now, although it’s possible that Chris’s reaction was a sign of an underlying mental health issue, it’s highly unlikely. Being close enough to the individuals involved, I think this was much more likely to be just a general lack of resilience.

The next example is Jerry, a blue collar worker who was a chronic under-performer. He was placed under a formal performance management process. It’s fair to say that a lot of people in the company weren’t happy when I began to push leaders at every level to set minimum standards for behavior and performance. The lower level leaders really had no choice, but to start managing performance more diligently, so Jerry’s direct manager started to demand a reasonable standard of work.

He really just wanted Jerry to do the job he was being paid to do no more, no less – and this wasn’t a difficult situation to assess. Jerry was a known malingerer, but his initial reaction was to lodge a bullying claim against his boss. Well, the claim was investigated by an independent external party – which is how the case came to my attention in the first place – and unsurprisingly the bullying accusation was found to be without merit. So when that failed, Jerry went out on stress leave.

In Australia, and I know this is the same in a number of OECD countries, no proof of actual condition is required to be shown to your employer. The privacy of the individual is the dominant consideration. All you need is a note from a local physician, which says nothing more than: “Jerry isn’t fit for work due to a medical condition”, and that’s enough to secure an indeterminate amount of time off work. Now, this can extend until the recruit balance of sick leave is actually exhausted, which can be a really long time. In this case, it is a classic example of someone using the system to avoid accountability for their chosen performance and behavior, and it’s extremely unlikely that Jerry was suffering from a genuine mental health issue.

The next example is of a really good person, just having a bad run. One of my direct reports a number of years ago, Nick, had just welcomed his third child to the family. Nick was an excellent performer, and I noticed that he’d simply lost his edge. He became distracted and ineffective in group meetings, the sharpness and clarity of direction that he would normally give his team was lacking, and it was clear he was struggling. So I called him out on it in one of our one-on-one meetings. I made the observation about his decline in performance, giving him the opportunity to talk it through with me. Nick took that opportunity to let me into his world. Now ,it turns out that he was getting very little sleep. Of course, this isn’t unusual with a new baby, but only getting three to four hours sleep per night for months on end is eventually going to take its toll. It also turns out that Nick’s wife was suffering from postpartum depression, which meant the lion share of the load for every other aspect of the family was also falling to him.

These situations can occur to any of us, at any time, for any number of reasons. Think about the events that are reasonably commonplace, but highly disruptive: a divorce, moving house, the death of a family member, a sick child. As a leader, it’s important that you’re aware of what’s going on in someone’s life so that you can adjust accordingly.

The final example though, is one of the most difficult. Often you can see that someone is struggling personally, but they stoically push on as if everything is fine. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this more times than I care to mention. As a leader, if someone doesn’t want to open up to you, you can’t force them to do so. So over time, it’s important to try and understand someone in this type of situation a little better – particularly if you can see a significant gap between their underlying talent and their demonstrated performance.

I remember a young woman who worked for me many years ago, Janine. She was enormously talented, incredibly intelligent, she had a high EQ and she was a really strong lateral thinker – but she just carried this sadness around with her, and it was palpable. More than once, I saw her crying quietly in her office. Now, in my head: once is a bad day, twice is a pattern. I asked her several times, in a few different settings, if she was okay, if there was anything I could do, if she had someone to talk to. Each time, she said she was fine, and that she was just a little sad at the moment.

There was clearly something going on that was seriously impacting her demeanor, and in turn, it affected her work. Not to the point that I’d say Janine wasn’t performing to an acceptable standard, but it was well below what she was capable of. And more importantly, I was worried for her personally. Now in this case, Janine continued to bottle it up and keep it to herself. These scenarios can make you feel quite helpless, but you have to respect the individual’s choices. And this scenario can get even trickier if the individual’s performance isn’t up to scratch.


To give you some ideas for how to handle situations where mental health issues become apparent, I’ll start at the broadest level and then come back to those four examples I’ve just walked you through. First, some other podcast episodes to listen to that will bring you up to a level of understanding about the object of the exercise. First is the episode that Em and I voted our number one episode for 2021:

  • Episode 135: When Empathy Becomes Sympathy – This has a heap of practical examples to help you work out how to approach your people with boundless empathy, but not let that morph into the weak destructive permissiveness that arises when you let empathy degenerate into sympathy.

  • Episode 182: What Is Strong Leadership? – Once again, this is a great baseline to understand the tone you’re trying to establish as a strong, capable leader who cares deeply for your people, but still not compromising the obligations you have to organizational performance.

So please have a listen to them if you get the chance, it will really help you round out your understanding of how to deal with any issues of mental health that arise in your team.


Now, the key thing about dealing with mental health issues is this: you need to take it seriously, and you need to err on the side of caution in pretty much every case. If you have any influence at an organizational level, that means putting in place the programs and services that support people in dealing with their problems outside of the day to day work context. Many large organizations provide a confidential counseling service for their employees, which anyone can access at any time. This was generally my first port of call for anyone who looked like they were having issues or struggling personally. I would simply remind them that the service was there and ensure that they knew how to make contact, that it was free of charge, and that it was completely private.

But later in my career, I got even more active in providing assistance. With increasing suicide rates of young men in remote locations, like those where CS Energy operated, it was obvious we needed to be more proactive. So, we signed up to a programme called Mates In Construction. This independent not-for-profit organization provided basic education on mental health to all leaders and employees. They also trained a number of volunteers inside our company to help people who were struggling with mental health issues by making sure they were referred to the appropriate services. Now, this completely de-stigmatised mental health issues, it became commonplace for people working alongside each other to ask the obvious question: “Are you okay?”

Now I must say, I almost missed the boat on this. I was approached by my accountable Executive for Occupational Health and Safety, who recommended this as a program we should get involved in. At the time, the physical safety of our people and assets was a long way from where it needed to be. So initially, I saw this as a ‘nice to have’, not a critical health and safety initiative. To his credit, this Executive badgered me, presenting different angles to the problem and showing me how we could add this to our work program without detracting from the critical initiatives in behavioral and process safety that were underway. It turned out to be one of the best programs we ever embarked upon. It was received incredibly well by our people, and made a massive difference to our ability to identify and deal with mental health issues in our workforce. It democratized mental health, removing the shame and making it a mainstream conversation that people were willing to have.


I want to finish by revisiting the four examples I walked through at the start of the episode and giving some suggestions for how I would handle them. Now, you remember the first example was Chris, the individual who took a few days off work due to a minor mistake and his fear of potential repercussions. As I said, this was a problem with Chris’s boss, as much as it was his own fundamental lack of resilience. The better response from Chris’s leader, instead of saying, “Take as much time off as you need”, would’ve been to use that moment to coach Chris on how to effectively use this to build resilience. I would’ve spent some time with him to help him gain some perspective:

  • The problem was easily fixed, so why are you feeling so insecure?

  • It wasn’t your fault necessarily. It was more a problem of weak accountabilities, which now we’ve identified and we’re going to move to fix.

  • And by the way, if you want to progress in your career, you need to be able to handle these little bumps and scrapes of corporate life.

 It’s just one of those, “Chris, let me know if there’s anything I can do to support you, but we need to put this behind us now and just get on with it”. Now, importantly, after a conversation like this, I would’ve kept an eye out for other signs from Chris. Any sign of ongoing issues would make me a little more concerned, and I potentially refer Chris to one of the mental health counseling services that were available.

Then there’s the example of Jerry, the chronic under-performer, who was playing the system to avoid performance scrutiny. This is probably the most straightforward. Jerry was a known malingerer, so you would treat it like you would any other under-performance issue. But here’s the subtlety: as long as you have a medical opinion that says Jerry isn’t fit for work, for whatever reason, you have to treat that as an undisputed fact. Then, it becomes fairly binary: he’s either fit for duty or he isn’t.

Now, if he isn’t fit for duty, he should be away from his worksite until he is fit for duty. And once he’s been cleared as fit for duty – well, it’s game on. You manage his performance and behavior as you would with anyone else – no softer, no harder. It’s critical that other team members don’t see Jerry using the system to avoid having to do his job, but equally that they see you being fair, reasonable, and compassionate as a leader. This is a really tricky balance sometimes.

The third example, in the case of Nick, the good person having a bad run – it’s simple. Just give him a break. Cut Nick, some slack while he’s going through his struggles and let him know that it’s okay, this too will pass. So give him some space and make sure he feels supported. Maybe put alternative processes, or people or tools in place to support him during a difficult time. He’ll get back to normal. He’ll be back to where he was, and his loyalty and performance will be even greater than they were before. But, also make sure he knows that he has the option of seeking help from the support services that your company provides.

Now the final example, the trickiest situation, where someone’s obviously struggling, but they don’t want to open up to you about it. Let’s face it, no one who works for you is obliged to disclose anything about their personal circumstances. Ultimately, it’s none of your business really. Even in the circumstances where their performance is affected by whatever their issues are. As a leader, you can only encourage them to open up if they’re having obvious problems and do everything you can to point them towards potential sources of support and assistance, but ultimately it’s going to be up to them. So, as we say, in cricket, you play every ball on its merits.

In the case of Janine, she wasn’t actually underperforming. But I still felt as though I needed to chip away to try to offer support. So I’d say to her occasionally, when the time felt appropriate:

Hey, look, Janine. I’m still a little worried about you. I can see how sad you are, and I totally respect the fact that you don’t want to open up to me. I get that, but I also want to do everything I can to make sure you have the support to help you deal with whatever it is that you are going through. Let me know anytime you feel like you might want to take advantage of that support, or talk to one of our Mates In Construction connectors. In the meantime, I’m just going to work with you to make sure you’re able to give your best each day.”

You want her to know that you are aware and that you care, but if she chooses to keep it to herself and pretend nothing’s wrong, well, the only thing you can do is lead her the same way you would anyone else. And that means she has to meet the standards you set for both behavior and performance.

Now, just in those basic examples, you can see how complex these situations can be. Given that 99% of us aren’t clinical psychologists, it can be hard to know where the boundaries are between personal care and leading for performance. So, err on the side of caution and give people the benefit of the doubt if you suspect that there may be mental health issues at play. Just don’t let it become an excuse for lowering the standard for those individuals. It will damage your team culture and it’ll have your high performers wondering why they bother.


  • Ep. #135: When Empathy Becomes Sympathy – Listen Here

  • Ep. #182: What Is Strong Leadership – Listen Here

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