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Victoria Shreeve
Research & Policy Officer
Victoria Shreeve

Easing the grip on the squeezed middle: supporting line managers in mental health

Authors: Victoria Shreeve

16 September 2014

According to a recent CIPD survey, 50% of all line managers say they feel under excessive pressure at work, with 15% facing this every day and 35% once or twice a week. This contrasts to figures across all employees, where less than half (42%) say they feel under excessive pressure: 14% every day and 28% once or twice a week. Line managers face a whole raft of conflicting pressures. For example, there is the pressure from senior leadership to play the performance appraisal role, the pressure from HR to play a wellbeing role, pressure from the individual to provide training and development: leaning too much towards any of these is considered ineffective. So does it come as any surprise that managers feel under pressure?

The Work Foundation put this issue to employers at a recent partner roundtable event, and discussed a number of solutions being implemented.  Those present included representatives from big business, trade unions, charities and research organisations. We asked what types of interventions they were implementing to support effective line management and mental health across their organisations, what barriers exist and what could be done to overcome them. A number of themes emerged.

 How do we get line managers to change their behaviour?

A key barrier to addressing mental health in the workplace is how to incentivise line managers to focus on employee health and wellbeing. The issue here is that there is little research on what would be a good measure of health and wellbeing and therefore it is difficult to set targets around it. For example, in the case of using sickness absence as a measure, a side-affect could be that this encourages presenteeism, another option could be measures of engagement, but these aren’t always linked to wellbeing. Attendees discussed a number of different measures they were implementing in their workplaces, including 360° manager appraisals and workforce surveys. If employers really want to change line manager behaviour, more research need s to be done to develop effective health and wellbeing measures.

 What if your line manager isn’t a ‘people’ manager?

Another barrier is organisational structure and progression routes. Typically, the only way to ‘get on’ in an organisation is to take on the management of others. However, the problem with this is that it pays little regard to whether managing people is really someone’s greatest strength. Therefore those who may have, say, a great technical skill (but little interest in management) and who wish to progress, are encouraged to focus their efforts on management rather than on developing that technical skill. To overcome this, organisational structures should focus on a variety of progression routes. This would allow those who are very adept at line management to concentrate on that, allowing all to focus on what they do best.

 How can we have open conversations about mental health?

A more basic problem is how line managers and employees can have meaningful conversations about health and wellbeing when there is a lack of common language. Attendees told us that in the business world employees are increasingly willing to discuss problems with ‘stress’, rather than with ‘mental health’. Perhaps it is that when talking about stress, employees feel that the problem is rooted in the world around them, whereas when discussing mental health, it feels more like the problem lies with the individual. The risk with this is that by using stress as the catch all term for mental health, it could hold employees and managers back from having meaningful discussions about deeper mental health conditions. Promoting open and frank discussion about mental health at work is therefore crucial.

This roundtable has highlighted a number of the issues and solutions that could be implemented to encourage more effective line management in future. These suggestions are just the start, but by taking some of these steps, employers could begin to relieve some of the pressures line managers face, and ultimately to encourage better mental health across their organisations.

 Keep an eye out for the results of our next partner roundtable on mental health in December, ‘Managing mental health and wellbeing in times of transformation and change’.


Comments in Chronological Order (Total 2 Comments)

Ingrid Ozols

21 Sep 2014 10:25AM

Hello from Downunder,
This is a great article and exercise that our dear friends at The Work Foundation held.
The 3 questions posed are most important and can't be answered easily or quickly. Having worked in this very arena for over a decade, through our Aussie experiences of our evidence based programs there are some ways to respond to each question...1/ Many employers had the same concern in Australia... in reality I have clients who did evaluate our work internally, informally and formally and found that using the lived experience and sharing real stories of how people with mental illness do and can recover and the power of working can be measured -there are several studies that I can link you to if required where this is shown and that the power of peer support within workplaces then helps q2 - re managers and lack of or who do have people skills. q3... Conversations - easy...reach out be kind respectful, compassionate and whatever you think about these issues - park them to one side, ask open ended questions, show the person they are valued and respected. We don't and can't fix another person's problems, but we can listen... that's half way...showing connectedness is key to making a difference in a person's vulnerable position if that is where they are. Just start anyway and anywhere....

James Steven

03 Oct 2014 12:50PM

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