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​How do you performance manage someone with anxiety?

How should our HR manager handle this situation?
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​How do you performance manage someone with anxiety?

​How do you performance manage someone with anxiety?

28 November 2019

How do you performance manage an employee who suffers from anxiety?

Our Workplace Advice Line recently received this question from a Workplace Assured subscriber.

Q. We need to performance manage an employee who suffers from anxiety. How should our HR manager handle this situation?

A. There is increasing recognition that a large proportion of the population suffers from anxiety, feelings of insecurity and other mood disorders, at least from time to time. From a management point of view this can make an employee difficult to deal with, as the person is more prone to work stress and may struggle to mask the problem in various ways.

For example, they may find it hard to match their work performance to management’s expectations and blame a range of external or internal obstacles. They may have more conflicts with other staff and with their direct supervisor, more complaints, or higher levels of absenteeism and lower productivity.

This can present a real dilemma for managers. They need to address performance issues but also understand that the employee feels intensely threatened by any negative feedback about how they do their job. The worker can be defensive and recalcitrant from the start, ready to seize on any hint of criticism and attribute it to unreasonableness, harassment or, under some circumstances, even racism on the part of the line manager or HR manager.

Managing the issue

To manage this type of reaction – or anticipated reaction – to performance management, a manager must make every effort to be fair, consistent and objective. It helps a great deal if the position description and the original job advertisement clearly set out what is expected, in concrete terms.

To avoid exacerbating the anxious employee’s stress, it may be helpful if management presents the prospect of performance reviews as a problem-solving exercise – an effort to make sure that any barriers to good workplace outcomes are properly addressed. 

In any case, it’s important to remember that workplace issues such as job overload, limited resources, technological change and role ambiguity can also stoke employees’ anxieties, so it could be a mistake to interpret a staff member’s uneasiness solely in terms of an individual’s own personal problems.

It may also help to reduce stress if management raises any key performance issues in general terms at staff meetings or informally in the weeks leading up to formal performance reviews. This way, staff will already be aware of, and prepared for, areas of management concern.

From the point of view of a highly anxious staff member, the power imbalance between themselves and management is likely to be one of the more disturbing and confronting aspects of a performance review, especially if they fear losing their job.

For this reason, it may be worth considering making performance reviews two-way – that is, inviting workers to provide feedback to management regarding any issues of concern in the way the workplace and work processes are managed. If two-way performance reviews are undertaken, management should stress beforehand that constructive feedback will be welcomed, even if it is not entirely positive, and that there will be no repercussions for negative comments. 

In a situation where there is chronic underlying conflict between a manager and a particular staff member, it may help to have a neutral third party such as an HR manager present, with the consent of the staff member. Performance management discussions involving the delivery of negative feedback to an employee should be held with a proper degree of privacy, and confidentiality should be maintained.

Areas of work performance in which the employee needs to improve should be quantified as far as possible, documented and followed up at regular intervals as needed. If the worker needs additional help or instruction in carrying out particular tasks, this should be provided. If the worker blames inadequate communication, resources or training for his/her performance deficits, these issues should be addressed by management at the earliest opportunity.

For particularly anxious or stressed staff members, it may be worth offering them referrals to courses, programs or other resources such as employee assistance programs, to give them strategies in dealing with their difficulties.

In the final analysis, a positive and empathetic approach to addressing performance issues can be conducive to better outcomes for both the anxious individual and the workplace.

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