Genuine mental health case … or not? If you think an employee is lying, here’s what you need to ask yourself first

By Camille Wilson

Friday July 5, 2019

Camille Wilson runs workshops on mental health and the workplace. Here, she challenges managers to think about how their employee is really feeling when a difficult conversation turns into a mental health claim.

I am sure we can all think of a time where you’ve been mid-way through a performance management case, or just starting out, and suddenly the employee unexpectedly pulls out the words “mental health”, and even worse, “it is because of this job”.

It is this very scenario that instigates the most frequent question that I receive from the various types of leaders that come through my workshops…

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How do I know if my employee has a genuine mental health issue? Or are they just saying it to get out of a performance management case?

Now, before anything else, we know that with anything good in the world, there is always going to be the bad. There are always going to be people who wrought systems, play on our emotions, and get what they want. And it makes us angry. It makes us rile inside, thinking they don’t deserve the level of support that you must offer as part of being their leader. You want to believe them, but you don’t. Your internal thoughts want to whip out a lie detector, set it up and catch them out. But we can’t do that either.

So, I hate to burst the bubble, but we will never necessarily know if someone is genuinely mentally unwell when they tell us they are or not. There might be signs, you might have your stipulations, but you will never know for sure, and the question that I always continue to encourage leaders to ask themselves is, “But what if you got it wrong?”

Let’s say you have an employee who hasn’t been performing well. You do the usual spiel, talk about their objectives, and how you’ll need to start working with them to improve. Now, imagine they respond with the dreaded words that you didn’t want to hear… “I have mental health issues”.

Firstly, I think it is important to recognise why we don’t want to hear those words. Mental health is complex and, therefore, when an employee utters these words, leaders who haven’t experienced it themselves struggle to understand why or how they have mental health issues. They suddenly start to experience the grasps of what we call the human perspective gap – the inability to see someone’s perspective without being physically or mentally in the same place as them. So, in the employee’s mind, it might be their chance to ask for help. But, in the leader’s mind, suddenly the employee has placed them in the perfect storm of not understanding it and needing to address it in a performance situation.

Secondly, once we’ve ended this place of “feeling out of our depth”, we start to scrabble at what we can understand – that is, we might start to look at other potential reasons for why an employee has claimed mental health issues. In this way, we might start to downplay it or, ultimately, we might convince ourselves that they are not being genuine.

But, stop for a moment and go back to the place where the employee is uttering the “mental health” word. You have your choice of deciding whether they are being genuine or they are lying. For the sake of this article, let’s focus on the latter option – i.e. they are lying. Currently, much of the time, leaders place individual blame onto the employee for why they might be lying but little do we think about the reason for why the employee has felt compelled to lie about it.

When we approach someone to discuss poor performance, I think we forget to think about what that employee really might be feeling… “Hey, maybe this employee is scared shitless they might lose their job” or “Hey, maybe this employee has a lot of pride and doesn’t take criticism well” or “Hey, maybe this employee just doesn’t know what else to say, because they aren’t ready to admit that their performance is dropping”.

Mental health is a good excuse, but it isn’t always the reason. But we too easily get ourselves caught up in a defensive trap when we think an employee might be lying to us.

Instead, I challenge leaders to shift their mindset. The fact that your employee is lying about mental health might show more truth about the situation they are in than them trying to simply get out of it.

This piece is part of a series of The Hard Truth articles by Camille Wilson to address the key challenges facing workplaces and mental health today. Follow Camille on LinkedIn to read more articles from the series or sign up to the series by email.

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