Protecting the Mental Health of the Good Eggs
With World Mental Health Day on Thursday, there is a celebrated focus of attention on recognising and supporting mental health. However, I’m interested in the less-acknowledged impact of ‘difficult’ employees on their colleagues’ mental health.
Recently I had an interesting conversation with a lawyer. She was understandably complaining about a colleague who was making her life hard. She described behaviours that the colleague presented at work and it occured to me that these aren’t unique:
- Talking badly about other people in the company
- Refusing to take responsibility for their actions
- Failing to complete their work
- Claiming their style of working wasn’t compatible with others’
- An unwillingness to cooperate with expectations/ requests
- Being unable to hear others’ viewpoints, to empathise and to compromise
What’s getting in the way?
Concerns about doing or saying the wrong thing to people stops many managers from tackling problems. I’ve spoken to a number of HR professionals who agree that managers often defer to them rather than have any sort of conversation with employees they have concerns about. The idea that things could get worse, that employees could ‘play the mental health card’ or, as a last resort, the time and effort to follow performance procedures, puts managers off. I’ve heard senior staff claim that it is simpler to ‘let it go’ and hope that things will change.
But, hoping for change can be wishful thinking and in the meantime, the bad egg impacts on the rest of the team. We need to consider the wellbeing of colleagues experiencing negativity and disengagement. I listened to the lawyer talked about the workplace with a sense of heaviness and despair. She was stressed, overworked and felt frustrated at being powerless to change the team dynamic. The behaviour of the individual meant the lawyer was carrying her colleague’s workload to avoid the team appearing incompetent to clients.
Taking Action: Employees
My advice to the lawyer was to address the issues in two ways. Firstly, she needs to have the confidence to speak up to her colleague when she is experiencing behaviours that are unacceptable. For example, telling the individual that she does not feel it is appropriate to be bad-mouthing other members of the team. Using “I” statements shows ownership of feelings that can’t be disputed, rather than “you” comments that sound critical. For example,
“I feel uncomfortable when you talk about X like that as I don’t share your views. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk that way in front of me.”
The lawyer also needs to be clear about her work boundaries and focusing on her own workload, no longer taking on work from her colleague. She needs to communicate her own achievements and what there is that remains outstanding, that is the responsibility of others, with the manager, colleagues and where appropriate, clients.
Secondly, the lawyer needs to be clear with her manager about the impact this individual is having on her and the wider team.
Taking Action: The Manager
The manager has a responsibility to take issues around mental health and performance seriously. And if they don’t, it is worth having a conversation with HR. The manager should explore what is driving the employee’s unhelpful behaviour (for example, insecurity) and consider what support might be helpful. Looking at aspects of the role the individual is finding challenging and skills that might be underdeveloped, such as emotional intelligence, is essential.
As well as being supportive, the manager has the right and the responsibility to set clear expectations about performance, for the whole team’s sake. The manger themselves may benefit from training and support, such as how to have ‘tricky’ conversations. We know that people who trust their team leader are twelve times more likely to be engaged at work. Imagine if the lawyer’s manager had that trust by helping everyone understand what’s expected of them; listening to employees and understanding their concerns; encouraging employees to offers ideas and suggestions; and following through on commitments. It could transform her working environment.
It is always worth identifying the ‘bad egg’ and addressing the issues. It’s not easy but it’s essential for the wellbeing, engagement and performance of your whole team.
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