Unpacking Performance Improvement Plans: A Therapist’s Insight into Their Impact on Mental Health : Future Focus Counselling & Consulting

Drawing from my experiences as a former technical professional and now as a therapist aiding professionals, I have encountered numerous narratives revolving around workplace stress. One such story is deeply etched in my memory, serving as a stark reminder of how traditional Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) can adversely impact an individual’s mental health. It provides a poignant illustration of the psychological toll these tools can have on employees, a subject that remains largely unexplored in the corporate domain.

#The Story Behind The Struggles

A friend, and someone I greatly admired for his professional acumen, found himself under the scrutiny of a PIP. His expertise had contributed to millions in business for his organization, and he had consistently been a dependable pillar for his colleagues. Yet, due to a phase of perceived underperformance, he was placed on a PIP.

A particular incident during this period stands out. On a day he was due to present his work, the meeting room morphed into an intimidating arena. His managers and peers, seated separately, bore silent yet potent expressions of judgment. It was clear he was being evaluated, observed, and critiqued under the harsh spotlight of the PIP.

This experience significantly affected his mental state. The man who was once confident and reliable now appeared visibly anxious. The adverse effects of exclusion and judgment were evident: his confidence waned, his voice faltered, and an invisible barrier seemed to form around him, isolating him in his struggle.

As his friend and colleague, I felt the need to intervene, to alleviate the mounting tension. Yet, I was constrained by my own of losing my job if I got involved. It was heartbreaking to watch him navigate this stressful situation, which, unfortunately, concluded with his decision to leave the company.

#Unraveling The Mental Health Impact

This incident underscores the potentially harmful psychological consequences of PIPs. Though intended as a tool for performance enhancement (or to make a case for termination), PIPs can often alienate employees and contribute significantly to mental health issues. The fear of job loss and the anxiety associated with constant monitoring and evaluation can induce high stress, which in turn can lead to conditions like depression, burnout, and other mental health disorders.

In my professional opinion, this kind of high-stress environment is counterproductive. Instead of fostering improvement, it fuels fear and anxiety, hampering productivity, dampening morale, and ultimately leading to a decline in mental health.

#A Call For Change

While the intention behind PIPs — to help employees improve and grow — is laudable, their implementation and effects often contradict this goal. Therefore, it is vital to reconsider and reinvent our strategies to foster a more supportive, empathetic, and psychologically safe workplace environment. Alternatives that prioritize continuous feedback, constructive dialogue, and collaborative development should be explored to replace traditional PIPs.

The narrative of my friend serves as a potent reminder of the immediate need for this shift. By addressing these concerns, we are not merely improving our workplaces; we are taking an essential step towards prioritizing mental health in our professional lives, a change that is long overdue.

Additional Reading

  1. Gaston, E., & Krupp, N. (2005). Enhancing personal development planning: embedding reflectivity in career learning. “Education+ Training
  2. Dutton Employment Law. (2020). What is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)? Dutton Employment Law. Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://duttonlaw.ca/performance-improvement-plan-pip/
  3. Primalogik. (2022). A Complete Guide to the Performance Improvement Plan. Primalogik. Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://primalogik.com/blog/performance-improvement-plan-complete-guide/
  4. HRForecast. (2021). A Guide to Personal Development Plans for Employees. HRForecast. Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://hrforecast.com/a-guide-to-personal-development-plans-for-employees/

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I am licensed to practice in Washington State and the following Canadian Provinces: Yukon, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.