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Manager’s Guide: Approaching Performance Reviews with Mental Health in Mind

Manager’s Guide: Approaching Performance Reviews with Mental Health in Mind

Performance reviews season can be a dreaded time of the year. Not only are reviews often nerve-wracking for employees, but they can also be challenging and complex for managers. For example, a manager may want to praise a job well done while still encouraging professional growth. In that same conversation, they may have to share negative feedback and navigate to the employee’s responses.

Employees may be inadequately prepared for the direction of the review, which might cause managers to worry that they’re blindsiding them. All of this can raise stress levels in an already tense situation. And that’s not all – performance reviews can have an impact long after they’re done:  

  • Only 10 percent of employees felt engaged after receiving negative feedback from their manager. 
  • Nearly 30 percent of workers who received a negative review began actively looking for new job opportunities.
  • Around half of the employees surveyed who received positive feedback were still disengaged, because the feedback they received was vague and unconstructive. 

So how can you approach reviews this year with mental health in mind? Read on – and for a more tips, download our manager’s guide

Don’t avoid reviews, make them productive

Rather than avoiding reviews, make them productive for you and your direct reports. Use review time to provide both positive and negative feedback in a meaningful way that keeps the employee’s mental health in mind.

“The foundation for providing performance feedback starts with ensuring psychological safety on the team,” said Joe Grasso, PhD, senior director of workforce mental health at Lyra Health. “This means employees feel that they can offer their own constructive feedback and ideas without concern of judgment or negative repercussions. And also that they can acknowledge that they’re struggling without fear that that’s jeopardizing their standing with their manager or team.” 

Structure reviews for a positive impact

Thoughtful preparation for a performance review is critical. Not only can it help guide the conversation–but it can also help both the manager and employee work towards a productive meeting.

As a manager, focus first on creating goals for the meeting. Determine where positive reinforcement is appropriate and where to make recommendations for improvement. Make a plan to address your employee’s overarching and project-based goals, as well as any areas of concern. And be sure to leave room in the meeting to gather feedback from the employee.

“Constructive feedback is essential to helping employees continue to improve, but the framing will determine how effective it is,” said Grasso. “Successful, constructive feedback puts the focus on collaborating toward reaching a mutually agreed upon and valued outcome. This puts the focus on how you work together to meet a shared goal rather than narrowly focusing on how to correct poor performance.” 

Make reviews an ongoing conversation 

Part of employees’ stress around performance reviews may come from not knowing what to expect. Their performance reviews should never be a surprise, though. By providing regular feedback, employees are more likely to anticipate the tone of their review, which can help ease some of the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty.

With that in mind, once-a-year conversations aren’t effective for many teams. As a result, annual performance reviews are becoming less popular than they used to be. According to a survey from HR tech firm WorkHuman, 85 percent of workers surveyed in 2016 said their company used an annual review. Just three years later, that was down to 54 percent. 

But even with the decline in annual reviews, a lot of workers still don’t receive regular feedback. In fact, nearly half of surveyed employees receive feedback from their manager only a few times per year or less. The lack of feedback can be challenging for workers’ mental well-being. They may feel that they don’t know what’s expected of them or even how they’re performing, which can lead to stress and anxiety–that’s why keeping lines of communication open can help. 

Handle difficult conversations through collaboration

Unfortunately, not every review will be entirely positive. Many managers may avoid giving negative feedback to avoid confrontation. But according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), this can create more problems later on, because glossing over problems doesn’t allow the employee an opportunity to correct them. And if issues continue to escalate, not documenting any concerns can make it difficult for the manager to take more serious corrective actions and/or future termination when it’s needed. 

The best way to handle these conversations is to treat them as a collaborative effort. 

“When you’re only focused on correcting behavior, the feedback can land in a way that feels personal, which can foster resentment or hurt feelings,” said Grasso. “Instead, you’re recruiting the employee into a problem-solving position. How do you bridge the gap between expectations and performance together?” 

Here are some tips to handle a difficult conversation about job performance:

  • Clearly state the issue and provide examples. If the feedback is ambivalent, it can be hard for the person to make adjustments. 
  • Be assertive, but not aggressive. State the facts from a neutral place. Your feedback should be intended to help the employee course -correct, without any personal feelings about their performance. 
  • Ask questions and listen. Find out if certain barriers or obstacles impacted their performance and if there are ways to mitigate these issues in the future.
  • Partner with HR. According to SHRM, it’s important to share with human resources when there may be negative feedback, particularly if it will result in an overall negative review. They may be able to give support and resources for structuring the conversation. HR may also be able to direct the worker to external resources, such as trainings, that can help them improve their performance. 
  • Discuss any communication gaps. If any new factors have contributed to a negative review that were not previously discussed, employees can feel blindsided. Sometimes it may not be possible to have a conversation about these factors beforehand, so acknowledge any lack of communication and take any responsibility for this gap.
  • Review and reset expectations. Make sure that in the future, the employee fully understands what’s expected from them and that these expectations are realistic. It may not always be possible to change a team member’s goals, but in some cases, reframing expectations may be necessary. On the one hand,  setting more attainable goals can help them succeed, but on the other, lesser goals may be demotivating, so be sure to approach them with empathy. 

While most managers don’t necessarily look forward to performance reviews, they can be constructive opportunities to engage, encourage, and coach team members.

When employees feel psychologically safe at work, understand their role and job expectations, and feel supported by their manager, they’re more likely to feel engaged and less likely to experience work-related stress, anxiety, and burnout. 

By approaching reviews with mental health in mind, employers can reduce anxiety, facilitate open communication, and help their people flourish in their careers.

For more information about how to conduct performance reviews with mental health in mind, download the guide


If you want help connecting with a coach or therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.

For employers who want to learn more about the value and impact of a mental health benefit, download our white paper or get in touch.

And check in frequently here or follow us on FacebookLinkedIn, and Twitter for more insights into supporting employees’ mental health.

Joe Grasso, PhD, is the senior director of workforce health at Lyra and a clinical psychologist by training. Dr. Grasso consults with employers on mental health initiatives in the workplace and leads the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content. He also specializes in developing, evaluating, and disseminating evidence-based behavioral health care programs.

By The Lyra Team
8 of December 2021 - 6 min read
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