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Line-managers and workplace wellbeing

There’s a cliché in HR: people don't leave jobs, they leave managers. And, as with most clichés, there’s truth in it. The manager is responsible for more than just allocating work. They set the ‘tone’ and (ideally) keep an eye on staff morale. Get these factors right, and you’re likely to have contented, productive employees. Get it wrong, and you’ll have your workforce heading for the exit.

The role of management is key – and never more so than in the current environment. The post-pandemic, hybrid-working, cost-of-living-crisis-world has meant upheaval and uncertainty, placing employees under stress both in the workplace and at home. More than ever, responsible employers are aware that they have a duty of care towards their workers – particularly their mental health. Managers are particularly important in this equation, not just because they set the workplace tone, but because (whisper it) it is also their responsibility to look after employee wellbeing.

Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, recently told That Wellbeing @ Work podcast: “[At] The National Forum for Health and Wellbeing… we brought in experts to help us understand what the big issues on wellbeing were. They all said the very first thing we need to look at is the line manager.”

According to a report issued by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), “line managers, given their position within an organisation, are often best placed to spot the signs of poor mental health in the workplace and – if equipped with the right skill set – can manage issues effectively before they reach crisis point. Their actions and behaviour also have a direct impact on employee wellbeing: a good line manager will foster the kind of working environment that makes employees feel valued, respected and supported, and will act as a ‘gatekeeper’ protecting them from any working conditions that present risks to their mental wellbeing. Conversely, a bad line manager can aggravate and, in some cases, even be the cause of stress, anxiety and depression.”

The problem

But there is a problem. It seems that line managers feel ill-equipped to handle matters of wellbeing, and workers are disinclined to confide in them.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 2022 Health Wellbeing at Work report found only 38% of managers are confident in having sensitive discussions and signposting people to expert sources of help when needed. CIPD’s findings suggest even fewer managers (29%) agree they are sufficiently confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health.

IOSH conducted a survey of more than 400 employees from a variety of businesses across the UK, and discovered that 62% of line managers said they didn’t get enough help from their organisation to support the mental wellbeing of their staff. And a staggering 80% of respondents said they would be reluctant to discuss their mental health with their line manager for fear of being seen as incapable in their role.

So while line managers are widely seen as the people best-placed to protect and enhance employee wellbeing, it seems little is being done to ensure they are up to the task.

Fortunately, there are plenty of effective steps employers can take to rectify the problem.

Get the right ones in

The first, according to Sir Cary Cooper, is to ensure the right people are given management positions. He believes that only around 25-30% of corporate line managers have the right skills – such as empathy, flexibility, the ability to listen without judging and recognising unmanageable workloads. Remarkable.

“HR must recognise that there will be some who have been promoted on the basis of their technical skills who should never be managing people,” says Cooper. “They should know who these people are and be able to make the brave decision to move them to a position where their skills are more appropriate.”

And while some managers will already have the necessary skills, and others will be incapable of ever developing them, there is a third category – managers who will be able to develop these skills with the right training.

Let the training take the strain

But recent CIPD figures revealed only 32% of organisations train their line managers to support staff with poor mental health. Expecting line managers to be able to spot and address mental health warning signs without any training is like sending soldiers into battle armed with a toothbrush.

Head of commercial development at training organisation Mental Health First Aid England (MHFAE), Jaan Madan, says that often line managers lack the confidence to approach their direct reports and have “a human-to-human conversation”.

“People can be afraid of saying the wrong thing, whether that be from a legal perspective or a fear of making the situation worse. So we teach people a very simple framework of how to have a guided and safe conversation to understand their needs and what they’re experiencing, listen to them and, if necessary, offer the right information,” he explains. Both MHFAE and Mind, the mental health charity, offer tailored courses to help line managers deal with wellbeing issues.

Britain’s next top modellers

Another key role that senior management and line managers can play in workplace wellbeing is modelling the right behaviour. An article on points out that “the problem of overworking is a top-down issue which can only be tackled by a fundamental shift at management levels.” If managers are working long hours and weekends, and not taking breaks, then their staff will often feel compelled to do likewise. “They are also modelling unhealthy behaviours to their teams, which could have wide-reaching adverse ramifications.”

Conversely, managers who take breaks, keep to office hours, take all their annual leave, and schedule designated time where devices are turned off, will send a message to staff that this is the company-wide expectation. Author and CEO Nigel Marsh believes that this behaviour will also help to convince workers that their employer is doing more than just paying lip-service to the idea of workplace wellbeing: “You have people at the top of your company who model the right behaviour so that your employees realize that you aren't lying.”

In short, management needs to do more than just talk the talk. “This is not about bean bags. This is not about ping pong tables, sushi at your desk or the wellbeing day, where you get smoothies and massages…” Cooper recommends that all companies, regardless of size, appoint a director of health and wellbeing to the board. Such a move will “enhance the productivity in the end, and reduce sickness absence – as we know from the HSC, 57% of all long-term sickness absence is for stress, anxiety, and depression.”

The bottom line

The IOSH says that their research shows that “line managers have a fundamental role to play in the promotion of positive mental health in the workplace. The positive impact they can have on the wellbeing of their direct reports is huge, therefore it is vital they receive the best possible support from their organisations to empower them to champion positive mental health within the workplace.”

Line managers need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to promote positive mental health. Those companies that do this will “reap the rewards of happier, healthier, more engaged and productive employees.”

Sir Cary Cooper draws similar conclusions, saying line-managers “are the people who will better team build. And importantly, in the future, they are the people who are going to manage remote teams or hybrid working much better than people without [the relevant] skills. We need this kind of person in place. Otherwise we're going to be in real trouble.”

To hear more from Sir Cary Cooper or Nigel Marsh on workplace wellbeing, then check out our podcast.

Image by on Freepik


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