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The line manager's role in mental wellbeing

Good bosses – who look after their staff instead of just trying to get the most out of them – are apparently in short supply. So HR must ensure line managers are mental wellbeing friendly

Employers want to do the right thing but line managers lack the training, skills or confidence required to effectively support others at a very basic level.’ This is a quote from October 2017’s Thriving at Work: The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers.

It offers telling insight into the current state of line manager capability on matters relating to mental health; and telling insight into just how important this capability might be to maintaining and improving the collective mental wellbeing of the UK’s workforce.

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According to professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School Cary Cooper, line managers are one of the most critical – if not the most critical – aspects of supporting employee mental health.

“Who at work provides you with a manageable workload, realistic deadlines, reasonable hours of work that gives you some balance, allows you to work flexibly and manages you by a praise/reward management style as opposed to fault-finding? A good boss,” he muses.

But he agrees there is currently something of a gap: “Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these in the UK managerial workplace.”

Indeed, a 2018 survey carried out by mental health charity Mind showed that only 42% of employees feel their line managers would be able to spot the signs of poor mental health in their staff, while recent CIPD figures revealed only 32% of organisations train their line managers to support staff with poor mental health.

Another study looking at the role of line managers in the mental health support matrix found that only 11% of employees have discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager, half of employees say they would not discuss mental health with their line manager and, shockingly, only 24% of managers have received some form of training on mental health at work (Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work Report, October 2017).

So if managers are the port of call for most employee queries and best positioned to spot early warning signs, what steps can HR take to ensure they are fulfilling this vital role?

Audit your line managers

The first step, says Cooper, is to determine which managers will be capable of developing such awareness and capability, and which just won’t. 

“If you want to help line managers to help employees with mental health issues or manage stress or manage wellbeing, you have to do an audit of them to find out which ones don’t have EQ – emotional intelligence – and then train them. The audit is key,” he asserts.

Cooper 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. “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. 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,” he says.

Training is key

While Cooper strongly advocates line manager training, he stresses that it shouldn’t be about making them psychotherapists. Rather it’s ensuring they recognise signs and symptoms and understand what might underpin mental health problems in their teams.

“Is it something they themselves are doing, such as overloading people or not allowing flexible working, for example?” he says. “Those line managers who look for the cause will deliver in the end if the problem is work-based. If it is to do with their private life, the line manager’s job then is to know where to send them for professional support.”

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.

Among the various workplace-specific courses it runs, MHFAE offers a free online mental health resource for line managers and a one-day Mental Health Champion course, aimed at line managers and HR professionals. “It’s about giving people the next level of good interpersonal skills and non-judgemental listening rather than adding to a line manager’s already very busy and pressurised world,” says Madan.

Mental health charity Mind also offers a raft of training courses for the workplace, both online and face-to-face. It also offers free resources specifically for line managers such as its recently updated People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health, produced with CIPD, and the ‘Mental Health at Work’ gateway, its latest collaboration along with MHFAE and nine other organisations. The comprehensive portal offers tools and guidance for line managers and others, information, advice and training.

Encourage conversation

Mind’s guide How to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem is another resource aimed at line managers. It focuses on practical tips such as creating an open culture through regular, informal one-to-ones and team meetings where mental health and wellbeing is discussed openly.

It also advocates approaching conversations in a non-judgemental manner, maximising use of the office environment for the benefit of wellbeing and open, productive colleague relationships.

This ‘culture of openness’ is something that KPMG UK’s head of people, Anna Purchas, says laid the groundwork for the firm’s comprehensive mental health strategy. Within that, and tailored towards its data-hungry employees, Purchas’s team has launched a company-wide modular e-learning mental health resource with specific modules aimed at line managers.

It also features stories from KPMG employees about their own experiences with mental ill-health and what helped them.

While all line managers are expected to complete the e-learning course, they are also expected to emphasise its value in team meetings, share their own stories, and have frequent one-to-one catch-ups to monitor the wellbeing of their staff.

“Our line managers are brought together regularly as a group and have responsibility for pastoral care so it’s a very important group to have done this,” explains Purchas, adding: “This is helping people understand how to support colleagues as a line manager, not as a mental health first aider and far from being a coach or a psychologist.”

This is backed by KPMG’s employee-led Be Mindful mental health network. Purchas asserts that it was the initial banishing of stigma through the sharing of stories, particularly by leaders, that underpinned the success of the e-resource.

It is a belief shared by QVC UK’s head of people Rachael Egerton, who has headed a major ramping up of its mental health and wellbeing strategy over the past year, beginning with internal and external training for leaders and line managers, courtesy of the Retail Trust. Then followed an emphasis on open, informal conversation at all levels, but particularly between line managers and their teams.

Egerton says: “We expect there to be regularity of check-ins and a consistent openness, and if there was any concern about a team member’s mental health, it would be normal here for a line manager to approach them without being formal and see what help can be offered.”

To support and maintain this good practice, an online resource is in the pipeline for launch this year at QVC UK. “We will continue to equip our leaders with information and our strategy will continue into 2019,” Egerton says. “It has become part of who we are so it’s about how we enhance it, and our line managers and leaders will be supported to do that.”

Head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, Emma Mamo, also highlights the importance of line managers carrying out regular ‘temperature checks’ with their employees, and developing individual wellness action plans together for each team member – another online resource offered by the charity.

“Given that poor mental health in the workplace is so common, employers need to ensure they create mentally healthy workplaces for all their staff, whether they are experiencing a mental health problem or not,” she says.

She adds the critical importance of managers feeling supported themselves: “Staff can experience stress or mental health problems regardless of their seniority or experience, so it’s really important that people managers are able to access support, particularly if they manage someone with a mental health problem.”

This piece featured in our Beyond awareness: taking action on employee mental health ebook in partnership with Perkbox. Read the full supplement, including extra box-outs, here