Performance is high. Life must be good.
Not always. Sometimes, a person is high-functioning and shines in their career or other areas (e.g., tests, projects) even as they struggle with their mental health, as stories of those like Robin Williams and Kate Spade make painfully clear.
To help these people, leaders and their teams need to let go of the stereotype that often inaccurately identifies individuals with mental health concerns as " barely keeping it together." This starts with recognizing the specific reasons why performance fails as a good mental health indicator.
1. Good performance can hold an employee back from saying anything.
When performance is good, an employee might use their scores, feedback or position to rationalize away how they are feeling. They can think to themselves, "I'm doing great here--there's no reason to complain. Things can't really be that bad if I'm still ranking like this." As a result, they minimize their troubles to others and don't seek out the help they actually do need.
In the same way, while the stigma surrounding mental health concerns is getting better, an employee might try hard to keep their performance up through their struggle because they fear losing everything they've worked to achieve. They can feel like they can't let up now that they've reached Level X, Y or Z because it will only disappoint others--and themselves.
2. Performance can be required.
To some degree, good performance is an expectation of any work contract. But in some cases, such as with professional athletes, the expectation is extreme. A worker can become institutionalized to this pressure and see it as normal, even when it isn't. They subsequently can keep working hard and getting results, but rather than talk about how they feel and the faults within the organization or system, they might turn their anxiety inward and wonder why they can't seem to cope.
3. Performance can be its own coping mechanism.
Sometimes, when a worker feels like their life is spiraling, they can throw themselves into their work full throttle. This gives them something to ground to and lets them avoid truly dealing with what's bothering them. In these cases, longer hours, volunteering, greater risk taking and attention to detail all can drive up overall positive perceptions of their persona and work, even as their mental health declines.
4. Natural inclination influences perception and behavior.
As much as we'd like to believe that we all start out on the same physical or cognitive page, this simply isn't true. You can be born with a lower IQ from the start, for example. Intelligent people who often are at the top of their game typically recognize deficiencies fairly easily--that is, they're less prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect. This lets them correct problems well, but if awareness of problems is coupled with low self-esteem, then a person can be unnecessarily critical and harsh to themselves even as their abilities outshine what others are doing. And intelligent people can concoct genius ways of hiding what's going on, taking advantage of their cognitive abilities to manipulate others without malicious intent.
Individuals can suffer from a single issue on this list, but unfortunately, people can face them in combination, too. Even intelligent people can lose sight of how abnormal the pressure they're under is, for example. This means that unraveling all the motivations a person has to stay silent about mental health concerns can take real work, and that employers have to take a holistic view to offering help.
Look at other indicators outside of performance, such as the appearance of self-care, absentee rates, apathy, social interaction or uncharacteristic/unusual behaviors, to better see the big picture. If you suspect a problem, don't hesitate to privately address your concerns or make a referral to a professional.