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Are managers bad for your health?

There have been numerous high-level reports on work and wellbeing, and in all of them the issue of the line manager comes up as a key aspect to employee health and wellbeing, says the Health and Safety Executive.

The first important evidence-based guidance on what damages a worker's health, was carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, culminating in its 2004 Management Standards on Stress.

These standards covered six areas of the workplace; demands (eg workloads), control (ie how much say an individual has in the way they do their job), support (ie how much support they get from their boss and colleagues), relationships (ie a positive working environment which encourages collaboration), role (ie how clear a person's role is) and change (ie is change managed well in the organisation?).

If you look at all of these, they depend almost entirely on the competences and skills of the line manager. An effective manager provides their subordinates with a manageable workload, autonomy in doing their job, the social support when things go wrong, a positive workplace culture of collaboration, a clearly defined job role without built-in conflicts and managing change by engagement rather than diktat.

This standard was followed by the Government's two-year Foresight project on mental capital and wellbeing (Cooper, et al, Mental Capital and Wellbeing, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), where it was highlighted that stress and lack of mental wellbeing at work cost the UK £25.9 billion per annum in sickness absence, presenteeism and labour turnover. This report from the Government Office for Science was based on refereed science reviews from leading international scholars, and identified roughly similar sources of stress as the HSE, but this time, it specially identified the role of the line manager as a major source of workplace ill-health and poor performance.

This came out at roughly the same time that Dame Carol Black's work, health and wellbeing review, and, slightly later, the NICE Guidelines on stress management in the workplace. All of these homed in on the key role of managers in enhancing or depleting workers' health and wellbeing.

From these evidenced-based reports, it was clear that if we could fix the 'manager problem', we might be able to reduce the substantial burden of sickness absence, medically driven early retirements and stress/mental health-related incapacity benefit (40% of which is due to mental ill health and stress). The Foresight report strongly recommended that we should select managers not only on their technical skills but also on their social and interpersonal skills. In addition, it said we needed training for existing managers in this arena, both in our business schools and in the training programmes available to the public and private sector more generally.

Indeed, Dame Carol and I decided to meet some of the UK's leading business schools to find out what they were doing to train prospective managers in social and interpersonal skills. And as someone working in a leading business school, I was not surprised to hear from them that they did very little of this sort of training, but understood and acknowledged the increasing importance of man-management skills not only in enhancing productivity but also in enhancing an employee's mental capital and wellbeing.

I would even go further than this and suggest that given the faltering economy, the job insecurity, the long hours culture, the overload on many after the downsizing and the poor morale in many organisations, that people-management skills are now more important than technical competence. Obviously, you need a minimum skill base, but managing people is about motivating, supporting and nurturing them, particularly in difficult times. As John Ruskin wrote in 1871, "in order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it".

Cary Cooper (pictured) is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School