From awareness to action: equipping managers to support mental health at work

Mental Health at Work

Michelle Robinson Hayes looks at the unseen burden of managers and the mental health crisis, and asks: are you helping your managers to help others?

Employees across all age groups and demographics are experiencing increased stress levels, anxiety and burnout. In fact, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 49% of all work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost due to such health issues in 2022 to 2023 – a rate which is higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

With this in mind, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that mental health has emerged as a critical aspect of overall employee wellbeing. 

Organisations that prioritise mental health may see improved employee morale, reduced turnover rates, increased productivity, and enhanced team cohesion 

But the question is: are those who are expected to manage the surge in workplace-related mental health problems, actually equipped with the adequate tools and training to do so – and to do so effectively? 

The crucial role of managers 

Managers play a critical role in the experience of their teams in the workplace. They interact with employees daily, oversee workloads, and are often the first point of contact for any issues or concerns.  

Given this direct relationship, managers also play a pivotal role in influencing employee mental health. Surprising research has shown that managers impact employees’ mental health (69%). This is more than doctors (51%) or therapists (41%), and is the same as a spouse or partner (69%). 

A manager who’s able to support others can make all the difference to an employee’s mental health journey. It would be no exaggeration to say that an unsupportive, neglectful or toxic manager can exacerbate an employee’s mental health issues. 

The expectation vs reality 

While many employers now recognise the importance of mental health support in the workplace, there is often a gap between expectation and reality when it comes to managers’ preparedness to address and manage these issues.  

We know that line managers play a vital role in creating workplaces that are positive for people’s mental health and wellbeing, and yet research by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health found that only 31% of managers have been sufficiently trained to recognise symptoms of mental ill health.  

Given how few managers have been given the appropriate training needed, it may come as little surprise to find that nearly half of employees feel their managers are ill-equipped to handle mental health-related conversations.  

The lack of preparedness can lead to missed opportunities for early intervention, exacerbating existing issues.  

Equipping managers with the right tools 

To help managers effectively help others, employers should prioritise providing them with the right tools and training, which may include: 

Mental Health First Aid training: Managers should receive training on how to spot the signs of mental health, understanding the right questions to ask employees and knowing where to guide an individual to for support. Managers should also be trained in active listening, empathy, and non-judgmental communication techniques. 

Resource accessibility: Managers should be made aware of available mental health resources, such as employee assistance programmes, counselling services and mental health helplines. Providing easy access to these resources can encourage early intervention and support. Managers should also understand the protocol of what to do in an emergency mental health situation.  

Creating a supportive culture: Although conversations about mental health have become much more commonplace, there still exists a stigma which prevents many people from speaking up and seeking the support they need. Managers should be encouraged to role model positive behaviours, open up dialogues about mental health, and promote work-life balance initiatives in the workplace. It’s really important employees feel table to use the policies and support available to them, without judgment or detriment to their career. 

The benefits of supporting managers 

Investing in managers’ mental health training is not just about doing good or being generous, it also makes good business sense. The World Health Organization estimates that 12 billion working days, worth $1tn per year in productivity, are lost annually to depression and anxiety. 

Arguably, ensuring managers are equipped to address mental health in the workplace doesn’t just make a significant difference to the lives of employees – taking a ‘prevention first’ approach can yield positive outcomes for the organisation as a whole. Organisations that prioritise mental health may see improved employee morale and job satisfaction, reduced turnover rates, increased productivity and performance, and enhanced team cohesion and collaboration. 

Studies have also shown that workers now place a significant emphasis on mental health support when choosing an employer. According to a recent Harris poll, 81% of employees said it will be “an important consideration” in their next job search, while jobseekers – particularly those in younger demographics – would be willing to shun a higher salary in favour of benefits including mental health support.  

Prioritising a ‘prevention first’ approach 

If you’re expecting your managers to effectively help others, it is your responsibility to equip them with the right tools and training to do so. By investing in your managers, you’re helping to create a healthier, happier and altogether more productive workplace for everyone. As an employer, now’s the time to ask yourself: are we really giving our managers the help they need to effectively help others? 

Michelle Robinson Hayes is mental health trainer and preventative services lead at Vita Health Group 

Michelle Robinson Hayes

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