Mental health at work: do we need line manager superheroes?

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In a moving article in The Guardian last week, Johann Hari, someone with decades of lived experience of depression, said that “the only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those deep human needs – for connection, to the things that really matter in life.”

Primary among the needs he identifies is meaningful work – work that offers a sense of purpose, of involvement, of control and of security.

We all know how important our line managers can be in shaping how we view work and how engaged we feel. Acas’ chief executive Anne Sharpe has described this relationship as “the greatest facilitator of workplace wellbeing”.

But what can line managers realistically be expected to do and what skills do they need to help them promote positive mental health at work?

Line managers: natural, trainable or just plain bad?

First, it might be worth reflecting on the kind of managers we have and how they got promoted. I have personally lost count of the times I have been at roundtables and focus groups with HR Managers and heard the lament that too many line managers are promoted due to their technical rather than their inter-personal skills.

This is certainly borne out by our own research on ‘The Management of Mental Health at Work’, which showed that managers often struggle to help staff with mental health problems due to poor people skills, a lack of time and low self-confidence.

The HR Manager in one of the case studies in the report said that “all our managers should be having regular one-to-ones with each of our people. And it’s not just ‘are you meeting your targets?’ It’s ‘how are you doing? How are you feeling? You know, what’s going on with you?’

Acas research showed that this often does not happen because:

  • Managers are the wrong kind of managers: one charity worker in our report described their manager as “very old school.. they shouted at people … that was their way of managing”
  • Even if they have the inclination, managers don’t have the time. Work intensification and constant organisational change mean that the only opportunity to talk is during performance reviews and the only real item up for discussion is whether revised targets have been met
  • If they have the time, managers may not have the required levels of self-confidence. This may be about not getting the right training, but it may also be about managers being wary of the training, of feeling they are being expected to become counsellors or experts in mental health. 

Line managers as superheroes?

These days the life of a line manager has almost never been more challenging. You name it and they are responsible for making it happen, whether it’s engagement, productivity, attendance or wellbeing. If thse super-heroes are really going to help the government fulfil the aims set out in its ‘Thriving at Work’ review, then they will need to acquire bucket-loads of emotional intelligence (EI).

So the first step is to recruit the right people with the right personal qualities to manage people in the round and not just the narrow work presentation.

Along with EI, our heroic line managers need:

  • Awareness of mental health and ill health. Stigma and fear can only be fought be knowledge and understanding. Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that those managers with the greatest empathy are, not surprisingly, those with lived experience of mental health problems.
  • Confidence to act. Although early intervention is often best, the most effective form of action is usually listening. Disclosure still remains a huge challenge but managers can be trained to have these conversations. Once there is a shared understanding, managers can help put in place any workplace adjustments that might keep someone in work or get them back as soon as possible
  • Time to talk. Time is under constant threat from work intensification and rising workloads. As one manager in our research said, “sometimes I feel guilty about that, you know, because they need to talk and I haven’t always got the time at the moment.” I would strongly advise all organisations to ring-fence pastoral time between managers and their staff.

In 2018 let’s all spare a moment to try and improve the mental wellbeing of those around us at work.  

About Adrian Wakeling


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