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Please bear with the long post, I want to provide context and background to clarify the question.


Background

I am working as the Principal Engineer in a fast-paced and high-stakes software company. We're the Pioneer team in the Philippines that started in 2019. Since the Pandemic hit in March 2020, 99% of the employees started working from home. The team is quite small (around 5-6 people), led by a Senior Engineer. I joined this team in June 2020 from another team I previously led. Most of them have been working together since Nov 2019.

Additional Information

Our hierarchy of positions are as follows:

  1. Director
  2. Manager
  3. Principal Engineer
  4. Senior Engineer
  5. Software Engineer

I am a big supporter of the importance of mental health and I personally have battled crippling anxiety for many years (this will be relevant later in the post).

Current Situation

One of our members ("Mary") and I started in the same week (Nov 2019). She is a Software Engineer. When I joined the team in June 2020, I noticed:

  1. During our daily zoom meetings, she's been absent from the calls 99% of the time.
  2. Always offline, or always missing-in-action.
  3. Delayed Replies to Slack Messages (Hours apart).
  4. She was not being assigned any tasks.

I never questioned it, since, at that time, I didn't hold any leadership positions in the team and just focused on my task. It was mentioned in passing that she was occupied by some personal errands (i.e. moving houses, getting internet connectivity, etc.).

However, our Director recently announced that I would be co-leading the team. He specifically asked me to monitor Mary's progress on her tasks since he noticed from metric reports that Mary hasn't had any real progress for some time now.

I reached out to the Senior Engineer to ask about Mary's situation and found out Mary has been dealing with issues. The Senior Engineer didn't specify what types of issues Mary has been dealing with for privacy reasons and advised me to talk to her directly to get the details. The Senior Engineer also forwarded an old email that our Manager sent to Mary, asking why she wasn't attending any of the required scrum calls. She Responded:

Mary: Apologies for being offline yesterday. Power was out until afternoon and internet was down from my end all night. I'll try to make up for it today. I keep forgetting the meetings out of habit. I also can't seem to shake off why I am avoiding people. Let me try harder and commit starting tomorrow.

After that, I reached out to Mary via zoom and she disclosed that she was dealing with the issues below, although I've had some doubts about her reasons:

  1. Burn Out - I checked her historical tasks from 2019-2020 and found that she hasn't been working on much. It's only a handful and most are still pending.
  2. Moved apartments - I knew this happened back in June 2020, but it's been 6 months since.
  3. Marital Issues - She didn't share any other information on this.

I also found out that she just came back from a two-week sabbatical and was just getting back to the motions of the workplace. I agree that martial issues is a serious issue and can negatively affect someone's work performance. However, I have serious doubts and my gut tells me she may be malingering and making it look worse than it actually is.

Issues and Action Taken

With the given situation above, and giving her the benefit of the doubt, here's some of how our discussion went:

  1. With Mary's permission, I provided some personal advice on how to overcome these issues as I also experienced (and still experience) some mental health problems.
  2. Also provided her with some resources such as online mental health counseling from a professional therapist, which is a company benefit.
  3. We both agreed that we will have a one-on-one zoom call daily (or as needed), so I can guide her on how to proceed with her tasks, in the hopes that it will lighten her workload and would get her going.
  4. Offered her additional paid time off to deal with the issues, which she declined.

Many weeks have passed and she hasn't been attending the calls and has been extremely slow in managing her tasks. Her responses to emails and messages have been few and far apart. I am getting the heat from our Director for delays in timelines.

My Questions would be:

  1. How do I know if her issues are real or if she's malingering?
  2. Are there any other ways I can help Mary get over this, without sacrificing the quality of deliverables?
  3. Should I let Management know? I'm afraid they'll be even worse at handling this and might fire her for performance reasons. We're in Asia and there's not really much protection for employees who have mental health issues.

I'm conflicted because I realize that she's having personal issues and don't want to seem insensitive but on the other hand, we still have to do our jobs, even at the bare minimum.

I've also looked at other SO Workplace questions:

  1. What are reasonable accommodations for depression

  2. Accommodations for employees with mental health issues

  3. Excuses?... Or true mental health journey?.. Time to recover?

But it seems the suggestions there have already been done.

Any advice is welcome.

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    @user Philippines. I don't think Mental Health issues are that widely accepted here. – AWOra Dec 9 '20 at 11:34
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    Be careful. You reveal so many details here that this employee's identity is pretty much revealed by anyone who knows her. You can get into deep trouble about posting this sort of thing publically. I think you should go back and edit your question to remove some of the details, so the employee's identity isn't so easily ascertained. – WetlabStudent Dec 10 '20 at 4:06
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    Wait, you have 5-6 persons in your team and 5 levels of hierarchy? – henning Dec 10 '20 at 9:40
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    Does she have health insurance? In Germany an employee in her position would go to a doctor and be diagnosed with an acute episode of anxiety disorder/depression/whatever and could stay home at least for some time while being paid by the insurance. – henning Dec 10 '20 at 9:46
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    @henning--reinstateMonica This is probably not the only team within the hierarchy. – employee-X Dec 10 '20 at 19:53
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My small firm faced this with an employee. We had (and I hope that you do, too) disability insurance coverage which pays (some of, but it's tax free so it is supposed to work out the same) a person's salary when they can't work. I suggest that you suggest to either this person or your manager that they go on disability leave for a while.

This has the following advantages:

  • the pressure is off the person. They are not missing meetings or deadlines any more. Yet they are still being paid. This can be HUGE in terms of letting them recover
  • the company doesn't have to pay them (your firm is large and may not care; we were under a dozen people and it mattered)
  • nobody has to manage them and deal with what they didn't get done, because we all now know they won't be working for some time

For these three reasons alone I strongly recommend it.

Depending on your insurance company, other things may happen:

  • they may insist the employee sees a doctor to confirm the disability. This could be seen as intrusive and unpleasant, but if it is done confidentially would eliminate the low level "is that really enough of a problem to keep someone from working, are they maybe milking it" worries I see in your post
  • they may insist on (or strongly recommend which is indistinguishable from insisting) particular treatments. Our employee was made to see a counsellor. Did not want to. Complained strenuously to me. I explained I could not afford to pay someone who wasn't bringing revenue, so unfortunately going along with what insurance wanted was the only option to get paid. The counselling really helped the employee and they were glad in the end. (Not all stories end so well: another employee on disability for back issues was pressured into taking pain killers that gave her a heart attack in her 30s. She recovered from both in the end, but just saying insurance companies have power and don't always get it right.)

Overall I think it's the right thing to do. The person can't work because they are ill. There should be something in place to handle this other than pretending they're working, pestering them to do things they can't, and paying them anyway.

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    To the OP: I guess I don’t have to tell you that in the Philippines a doctor’s letter can easily just be paid for. You may want to involve the company doctor. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Dec 10 '20 at 4:36
  • @SebastiaanvandenBroek What is the basis of this biased opinion? – Robert Andrzejuk Dec 10 '20 at 9:21
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    @RobertAndrzejuk biased? Ask anyone that spent more time than a holiday’s worth in SE Asia and you know this is how things go here. Been here 5 years. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Dec 10 '20 at 9:32
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    It’s not just foreigners, local people know this too. Just have a look at where the Philippines are on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_Perceptions_Index. Or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corruption_in_the_Philippines for some more info, albeit not from the most up to date wiki. – Sebastiaan van den Broek Dec 10 '20 at 9:54
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    @SebastiaanvandenBroek yes that may be true in some instances, but since we have a company benefit for mental health counseling, i think it would have to come from those doctors. – AWOra Dec 10 '20 at 23:05
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Personal issues are exactly that. Personal issues. If they can do their job, great. If they can do their job, but at rather mediocre performance, it might be a good idea to keep them on anyway, after all "average" is good enough and they might get better when their problems are over. But if their performance is seriously bad and they still want to get paid for that instead of taking time off? Then you need to fire them and hire someone who can do the job at least at "average" level. A company is not a charity or welfare organization. It pays people to make money from their work. If that's no longer possible, then something needs to change.

Where I live it's somewhat easy: a mental health issue is protected the same way that physical health issues are protected: you get a professional opinion on it from a medical expert and that medical expert will give you a sick note that says what you can or cannot be expected to do. In case of physical injury it might be "cannot lift over 10lbs", in case of mental problems it might be "cannot work more than 4 hours a day".

Now, without any certificate or notion that they do indeed seek medical help, I don't think you can do anything but make it very clear what is expected and follow through with consequences. Not being at work or not appearing in scheduled calls for example is a deal breaker. Any supermarket cashier would be fired if they did not show up for their shifts repeatedly and without justification.

You can offer help and alternatives and it seems your company even offers it and you already did. If the person does not take the help, then it does not really matter whether their issues are "real". Your problem is real. And if they cannot fix their end, you have to fix your end and find someone else for the job. How to do that, in terms of legal requirements and people management in general is probably something for your manager to consider.

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    I think you could add that this must be escalated to management, so they can handle it. The issues are very personal and requires to be handled by people that can decide how to process them and take decisions. – Just another Java programmer Dec 9 '20 at 11:18
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    Most of this is good, but I don't care for the "supermarket cashier" comparison. At least in the USA, they can be fired for almost any reason or no reason at all, so there's little real comparison there. It's true that most other positions up to CxO can have the same result, but there's little domain knowledge to be lost in a cashier, vs a manager or software developer, so firing a cashier has fewer long term effects than a knowledge worker. – computercarguy Dec 9 '20 at 19:20
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    I agree that getting them to get help is the way to go, but I don't really like your opening attitude of essentially "people are simply replaceable resources and you should dump them as soon as it's inconvenient to keep them." This has been a hard year for everyone, and companies need to be realistic and give some leeway for people under stress. But absolutely it's not helping the employee to just stew in their problems either. – Kat Dec 9 '20 at 22:02
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    @Kat Well, we are not talking about someone having a bad day or week here, we are talking about someone having a bad year, and not taking any help to improve it. That's not just "inconvenient". A company is not a welfare organization, if someone has problems for a year, healthcare needs to kick in and care for that person so the company can hire someone else who gets the job done. Would you like to be on the receiving end of that persons work? Would you like your dentist to do a really bad job and just say "eh, I have personal problems, live with it"? – nvoigt Dec 10 '20 at 6:49
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    @JustanotherJavaprogrammer OP was recently promoted to a management position and was assigned this task by upper management. I don't think you can punt this one, especially if you plan to advance your career. – corsiKa Dec 10 '20 at 8:53
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From what you describe, you and your organization have gone far and beyond to accommodate the employee. I can see that in high-performing organizations everyone is more or less self-organizing and motivated. Thus, management deals mostly with setting objectives, not checking time-sheets.

I would suggest setting clear expectations on performance, meeting attendance, and home office setup. Sit down with the employee, write up a plan for the next few weeks, and define clear milestones. Discuss the consequences of the plan. If the plan is not fulfilled to a satisfactory level, proceed with disciplinary action, and consider letting the employee go. This is done to send a clear message to the employee and create a paper trail of sub-performance.

If it is clear that the employee is not capable to create or follow the plan:

  • According to this, employees in the Philippines are entitled to conditional paid sick leave (sponsored by the state). It would be best if you encouraged your employee to seek professional help and take sick leave.

  • If the employee's condition does not warrant sick leave, unpaid leave is another solution to find time to recover from whatever personal issues.

From your writing, it seems that you are trying to show empathy and find solutions to not let her go immediately. This is great! However, for the sake of keeping up with others' performance, you have to set clear boundaries of how far your generosity and empathy go. If you allow poor performance to continue without remediation, what message does it send to everyone?

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  • Honestly I think this is the best answer. A balance between empathy and concern, and setting reasonable expectations for an employee's performance, is important. There are many reasons why mental health can be crappy this year and we should make allowances for that, but a plan of action agreed by both sides, with realistic expectations, is a good way to get around this. – Lou Dec 10 '20 at 16:11
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I value Human approach rather than the "business-get-done money-wise" approach every single time. But, there is a soft limit.

From my own experience, I was appointed to lead a team which has a person (HK) with mental issues. I was briefed by the previous Team Lead with a bit of the HK's problems history but with not many details (I filled the blanks as I managed the person).

I started working closely with HK & noticed some of the difficulties you faced as well. After a while they distanced themselves & kept out of touch.
When I felt that I had given HK more than enough time, I started to make it clear that I am here to help & might be the only friend they had in the company. I am understanding but the company may not be as patient. If the person did not actively act to solve their problems or at least face them (talking, recognizing, ...) there might be a termination that will further deepen their situation to a worst place.

Hope my advice helps you.

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    Did that approach work in your case? – Andrew Leach Dec 10 '20 at 11:58
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    Yes, fortunaly. HK become cooperating when he realize the gravity of the situation. Together, we started communicating effectively and I did a bit of publicity to thier work to help them with self esteem & gain more confidence. I am happy that the approach was a success :) – clueless007 Dec 10 '20 at 19:23
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Some things which need to be taken into account:

  • Software engineers are high achievers - many are prone to fear of failure, some may delay a task, as they don't see how to achieve the end
  • They are used to solving problems - so personal problems can drain their energy, which is required for work
  • Women in many of today's societies are expected to fulfill many roles - this can lead to rebellion, especially if this a young person (in a young marriage) which in turn escalates conflicts and decreases work performance
  • With lock-downs in place and people having to spend much time together with the same people, with no ability to "get away", many times "cramped" in a small space - that in itself is a massive stress.
  • Moving homes disturbs a persons rhythm - things cannot be found, unexpected issues with yet unknown solutions appear.

Assuming I'm correct about this person: they require help and understanding on many fronts - probably more so from a mentor in life.

This persons attention is been drawn to many issues at the same time. Unless they start working out and solving their personal issues, their work performance will continue to suffer.

Maybe by giving this person very short, easy tasks, which preferably this person has proved themselves previously in, they should be able to focus on it. Basically micromanaging this person's every task.

This will beneficial for the company, as work will be done and beneficial for this person giving them time to solve problems elsewhere. Unfortunately it will require work upfront to prepare the tasks for this person.

As you are not in this person's life for long, I doubt you can help solve their personal problems. So just be frank about your actions. And work together on how work can be done.

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Put them on a Performance Improvement Plan.

Simply put, their work is not currently at the standard that you would expect it to be at. In order to correct this, I would recommend that you should set a formal Performance Improvement Plan in order to set timed benchmarks that you expect them to meet. As with all such goals, each of these benchmarks should be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based. For instance, you might set a goal that in three months, they will have attended 90% of all scheduled meetings in a rolling two week window. This plan and its goals would be agreed upon and signed by both parties.

You can then manage their progress towards these goals with your regular meetings, in order to improve this employee's performance back up to acceptable levels. If they fail to do so, despite the assistance you've provided to them, then you would likely have grounds to fire them under "gross and habitual neglect of duty", which is an offense that allows an employer to fire an employee for cause, according to the Phillipines' Bureau of Labor Relations - and incidentally, "I was suffering from mental health issues" might be a fire-able offense in its own right, because the same page also lists "disease / illness" as grounds for termination of employment, though that would entitle them to separation pay equal to one month's pay, or one half-month's pay for every year of employment, whichever is higher, and it would require a health professional to sign a document certifying that it can't be cured without at least six months of treatment.

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  • The problem here isn't "this person is an object wasting space and money so we need legal grounds to get rid of them", it's "this person is a person who is struggling and we need a balance between helping them and ensuring work is done on time" – Redwolf Programs Dec 10 '20 at 4:39
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    @RedwolfPrograms Sure. There's a reason why it's called a "Performance Improvement Plan": it's a plan to improve their performance to acceptable levels. That's why I emphasized that all the goals for it should be SMART. Firing them is something that you resort to if they fail to improve despite all the effort you've put into the process. – nick012000 Dec 10 '20 at 4:41
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    @RedwolfPrograms If I was going to give suggestions on how to get rid of this person, I would just suggest for them to send her to a doctor to get a note that says whether or not it'll take more than six months of therapy to fix this mental health problem, then fire her with a few months of separation pay after the doctor says that it probably would; it'd probably be cheaper to pay for the separation pay than to continue paying her while implementing a Performance Improvement Plan. – nick012000 Dec 10 '20 at 5:10
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    It's cheaper... , but is it the right thing to do? – Robert Andrzejuk Dec 10 '20 at 14:22
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    Yes it is the right thing to do. There are many people, motivated people, who through no fault of their own have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. They have housing to pay for and families to support and they WANT to work. Many times employees who seem to lack the ability to self-motivate respond very well to "external motivation" - when they are reminded that they are not unique and others out there would love their jobs. Unless you are the owner of the company in which case it's your money, you and everyone else in reality is "replaceable" If you don't like it start your own company. – Ted Mittelstaedt Dec 11 '20 at 5:10
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This is one of the hardest things for any manager to do. I have worked as a manager, and I have had mental health issues myself in the past, and I have also had to handle employees with mental health issues too.

  • Your priority is to ENABLE the person to do their work. There is plenty of other advice from other posters.
  • Have you asked her what changes could be made at work to help reduce her stress?

Note: Many people may not know themselves what changes would help. We all have an internal expectation of 'work', but actually 'work' can be surprisingly flexible to accommodate individual strengths and weaknesses.

Do you have a diagnosis? It may help to try to get a company doctor or independent medical worker to see if they can diagnose her. Some people with mental health issues are very resistant to getting diagnosed, which is understandable. If this is an issue, work with her to find a non-threatening source of professional assessment and diagnosis.

Once you have a diagnosis, you can do your own research to understand what support you could try offering. Bear in mind that everyone experiences their condition differently, so some types of recommended support may turn out to not work at all. This is a time of experimentation and running short trials of different types of support and adjustment.

Some countries have 'workplace coaches' who are specialists in supporting staff with disabilities or mental health conditions. They come in, work with you and Mary for a while, and then make some suggestions for you and Mary. In my experience, the absolute best workplace coaches have been the ones who are themselves disabled or who have the same mental health condition as Mary. They have huge experience and knowledge of that condition and won't give you generic recommendations.

If someone has a broken leg or other medical issue, we expect them to:

  1. get it diagnosed by a medical professional
  2. get it medically treated
  3. follow the physiotherapy exercises
  4. avoid excessive exercise while it heals.

If this is not done, the leg will never heal.

Mental health that significantly impacts a person's life or work is the same level of urgency. It needs to be:

  1. Professionally diagnosed,
  2. Professionally treated (finding the right professional can be difficult)
  3. The person needs to follow the recommendations given (which is not easy, I know from personal experience).
  4. Changes made to life / work to reduce or avoid the specific situations or responsibilities that the person may not be able to carry out due to their condition.

So you may need to support Mary with finding a professional (the first one or two are likely to turn out to be the wrong people, but you have to start somewhere), and also with following the recommendations given. Keep an eye out for when something isn't working and put in place something different. Mary may not be able to notice this herself. Keep a log of what you have tried, and what works / doesn't work.

In terms of her work, look at what her strong points are, what are her best areas of work? What work has she actually done? What does she enjoy about work? Help her to focus on these points. Look at what stresses her, what she is avoiding doing, and see if you can remove these areas from her work routine / her responsibilities.

Some examples from my own experience:

  • One employee was intelligent but had ADHD, and could not deal with email (with the team, with communicating with the rest of the team). I brought in a PA (personal assistant) to deal with email on their behalf. The PA screened all email, responded where needed, and updated the employee (face to face) on their priorities, and helped to keep the employee on track. I paid the PA from the employee's disability allowance. Later when we shifted to home-working, the PA would spend the day on FaceTime with the employee to help keep them on track.

  • Another employee in a management role could not deal with times or scheduling or making plans. Again I brought in a PA to support them with this aspect. The employee would brief the PA on their plans, and the PA would type this up into a schedule or worksheet, send this to the rest of the team as needed, and remind the employee of upcoming meetings etc.

  • Another employee had mental health issues that came and went. By mutual agreement we reduced her hours to part time (3 days or 4 days per week). When she was feeling good, she would work full time and build up her hours. When she was feeling bad, she would take time off (a few days or a week or two), and it was OK because she had spent a period of working full time. This gave her level income through the year. We monitored her hours worked over several months to make sure they averaged out properly over the year and made adjustments as needed.

In all three cases above, we made the entire team aware of the situation (with the person's consent - sometimes the person briefed the team themselves, sometimes the person preferred the manager to do the briefing), so that they knew how to more effectively work with the person and keep them as a valued member of the team.

None of this is easy.

It can be very stressful for the employee.

You may start thinking the employee is in the wrong job, but you cannot say this to them. The employee has to come to this conclusion by themselves, and start the process of working out what type of job would better match their strengths and weaknesses.

You can only offer support, and offer to adjust the work environment, and come up with ideas that they may not have thought of themselves.

I hope this helps.

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