It was that time of year again – performance reviews. The managers were discussing the team’s work from throughout the year, talking through each employee, figuring out who was performing and who perhaps wasn’t. They had gone through most of the team with one employee left.
Sarah was one of the top performers of the team and all the managers knew it. She was always left until last because the managers liked to leave the meeting on a high note.
As the HR manager begins to say Sarah’s name, the managers all excitedly prepare their two bobs of input that they can share with each other. Her direct manager, Henry, though begins to fidget a little in his seat. His eyesight dropping to the table, trying to avoid looking at anyone else…Should I say something or not?
Before Henry can speak, the head of the division pipes up first…She has always been a high performer…she has this extraordinary ability to break down a complex situation into a simple one, always providing the solution with such clarity, don’t you think? Looking around the room as he speaks. All the managers begin to nod in agreement.
She sits there, biting her fingernails, working through a report that she knows is due this Friday. Stop biting your nails, you know that it isn’t good for them. Her eyes trawling through the names and numbers, letting them work through her mind. This report isn’t good enough yet. She looks at her watch… 7:00pm. She can feel the creeping feeling of tiredness come over her mind. Wake up, you need to make this right, she barks at herself and gulps down some of her coffee.
Another manager chimes in, Yeah, I agree, she puts everything into what she does and all of her work is of such a high quality. We had a project over the past few weeks and you just cannot fault the work that she does. Always putting in the extra hours and it pays off in her results.
As the managers continue, Henry keeps shifting in his seat. He had been noticing a change in her demeanor lately, though he cannot put his finger on it. She handed him a report the other week and her hands were trembling. She was smiling, but something didn’t feel right.
She knew she had to stop working soon. The chest pains have been getting worse recently and her doctor says she needs to take some rest to recuperate herself. As she continues working through the numbers, her mind is getting frustrated that she hasn’t got it perfect yet. Are you good enough to do this? Her mind retorts at herself. She tries to shake the thought. She knows she has another couple hours left on this before she can take a break. She shakes her head to nobody and moves her head closer to the screen. I must get this done.
The head of the division speaks up again, 100%, she works hard and is always on the ball if we need her too. She is a consistent worker and I am impressed by what she’s done in a short time.
With the surrounding managers each smiling at one another, one chuckles, maybe even worthy of a promotion soon?
Henry is still sitting there quiet, continuing to think, I cannot jeopardise a promotion for her. What if I’ve judged the situation wrong? What if she is handling everything OK? I don’t know what to do.
Suddenly, she wakes up. She had fallen asleep on her laptop. She looks at her watch…11:00pm. She looks at the report and feels sick inside. Told you that you weren’t good enough, the thoughts begin again. Reaching for her phone, she sets her alarm for 5:30am. I can get in early, before anyone else gets in, to finish the report, she nods hazily to herself. She can feel her weakened body struggle to the bed and she collapses into it.
As they begin to close, the HR manager noticed that Henry hadn’t spoken, Henry? What are your thoughts? How have you been finding her work recently?
All eyes turn to Henry. He shifts once more in his seat, Should I tell them? He knows she has changed and he thinks they are all expecting too much from her. She isn’t well, but she hasn’t raised it, and he is worried what they will all think.
Henry begins to speak, Yeah, I agree, maybe worthy of a promotion soon. He closes his eyes, feeling confused and lost on what he should have done.
Much of the time, when we think about mental health, we instantly think about those employees that we’ve started to see a downturn in their performance. We think about the employees who may seem disinterested, or are coming in late, or aren’t meeting their job’s requirements. We think about the awkward conversations and the performance improvement plans. We think about all the perceived difficulties that might come with an employee that raises their hand and says “Hey, I am not doing so well”.
Much less of the time, we think about our employees who are performing beyond our expectations. We don’t think that the employee bringing in the most revenue, or the one with the best client feedback, or the one who walks in every Monday morning with a big smile, could also be the one that is struggling inside.
For years, I was this employee. I was the employee who went above and beyond; the employee who stayed late and worked hard to meet the deadlines that just had to be met. I was the employee who everyone knew they could rely on. I was the employee who was given high performance reviews, despite the fact that I knew that I wasn’t OK.
To others, without the low performance, there was no reason to ask if I was doing OK. There was no reason to assume that I needed support because I handed in my work, on time, with a smile.
It is time to stop hiding away from mental health. Mental health isn’t only the traditional view of poor performance anymore. For every business failure, there are employees sitting behind it that have struggled to get there. For every business success, there are employees who have worked their arses off to make it happen.
The world is changing, and so is our view of mental health. It is time to keep up with the times, open up, and realise that mental health isn’t only about our under-performers. It is about everyone.
This article forms part of The Hard Truth series, a selection of articles written by Camille Wilson, the founder of Grow Together Now, that address the key challenges facing workplaces and mental health today. Follow Camille to read more articles from the series or sign up to the series by email.