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What’s a manager’s role in managing mental health?

17 June 2016

What’s a manager’s role in managing mental health?


Thanks to recent campaigns, such as Mental Health Awareness Week and Time to Change, the number of employees speaking out about their mental health is increasing. According to the CIPD’s Annual Absence Management Survey, more than two fifths of employers (41%) saw an increase in reported mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, last year.

As a nation we’re getting better at opening up the conversation around mental health, with many employees opting to confide in their manager in the first instance. On the face of it, this seems like a good idea: their manager knows them and has demonstrated experience at solving workplace problems and so, the employee assumes, might also be able to help them find answers and solutions to their personal problems.

However, for those managers who haven’t had any training or experience at dealing with a distressed employee, and aren’t aware of the NICE guidelines about their role when it comes to managing mental health, the chances of them providing an appropriate response are limited.

So what exactly is a manager’s ROLE when it comes to managing mental health?

Government guidelines for managers

The role of managers in managing mental health has now become such an important topic that the Government’s National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance on the six principles that managers need to bear in mind, linked to the HSE’s management standards for work-related stress.

In summary they need to:

  • Assess and manage the demands placed on employees
  • Allow employees some control in how they carry out their work
  • Provide support
  • Promote positive relationships
  • Ensure employees understand their role in an organisation
  • Manage organisational change

Helpful as this might be for reducing workplace stress, the vast majority of calls we get to our Employee Assistance Helpline are from employees whose performance at work is becoming affected by distress they’re experiencing from issues outside work, such as the breakdown of their relationship, financial worries or legal issues.

Although these might seem like non-work related problems, if they’re affecting the employee’s performance at work, the manager needs to know how to provide the appropriate response.

Unfortunately, the following examples of unhelpful behaviour have been described and are common illustrations of how managers currently attempt to deal with distressed employees, which as you can see exacerbate the distress for the employee:

  • Laughing at the problem and telling the employee it will soon just disappear
  • Telling the employee exactly what they should do, how and when they should act
  • Giving the employee the full story of the manager’s experience of the problem
  • Judging the employee to be inadequate because they have the problem
  • Comparing the employee’s story to another employee’s situation

How should managers respond to employees in distress?

The first thing managers need to know is that it’s not their role to try and solve the employee’s problems for them. It is their role to LISTEN without judgement or interjection.

The reason for listening is so that they can assist the employee to work out the best options they can for their own situation. The manager is a facilitator of good thinking, at a time when employees are struggling with rational and common sense thoughts.

This can feel like a very difficult approach to take, particularly if the employee is feeling overwhelmed by their situation. However, by listening and asking questions, without giving advice or making judgements, the manager can provide a thoughtful space for the employee to think about their situation and begin to explore their own coping strategies.

Useful questions might be…

  • Who else have you talked to about this problem?
  • Who might be able to support you with this?
  • Have you thought of options that might help?
  • Where would be a good place to start?
  • How can I help with this?

It is also the manager’s role to enable the employee to access help and support. For example, by explaining how the Employee Assistance Programme can provide a fully confidential space for them to talk to experienced professionals, ranging from counsellors to financial experts and lawyers, about a wide range of problems.

Empowering managers to help others, without them feeling like they have to become personally involved can also have far reaching outcomes outside the workplace in terms of their confidence in helping others.

In summary, managers need to know that it is their role to:

  • Develop a culture of support and personal responsibility
  • Notice when employees are struggling to cope
  • Offer kind enquiry into what’s affecting employees
  • Listen to what they have to say (see our blog on this)
  • Make the employee aware of the support services in place
  • Encourage employees to utilize the support services
  • Refrain from problem-solving on behalf of the employee

At the same time, it’s also the manager’s role to look after themselves, to pay attention to their own mental health and to be mindful of the stress that is involved in supporting employees through difficult times.

What isn’t it the manager’s role to do?

When it comes to managing mental health, it’s essential that managers remind themselves that they’re not counsellors, psychiatrists or mental health professionals and it’s NOT their role to attempt to take on or solve the employee’s problems. Not least as to do so could potentially prove harmful to the employee.

For example, in the case of an employee struggling with domestic violence, a frightening statistic is that: two women are killed by their current or former partner in the UK every week, with their lives most at risk at the time they attempt to leave. Although the manager might think it’s helpful to encourage an employee affected by domestic violence to immediately leave their partner, it is essential to assess the risk that the employee is in, before the manager takes any definite action. If the employee does want to leave their partner straight away, an exit strategy needs to be developed with a range of appropriate professionals.

Although the manager might have a role to play in this, for example, by giving the employee time off within work hours to carry out safety planning with the police, and other agencies, it’s imperative that they in no way attempt to problem-solve on the employee’s behalf, as this could be dangerous.

Creating a culture of support

On a broader level, to encourage employees to come forward at the earliest opportunity to get the help and support they need. Managers also need to create a culture of personal responsibility and support. For example, by asking employees how they are feeling, coping or managing their work on a regular basis.

The style and words that are used to ask these questions need to match the culture of the work setting. If it’s not a culture where feelings are talked about, be creative and use other methods to enquire about your employees. One manager asks her employees to rank on a scale of 1 – 5 how their day has been. Another manager uses specific emojis* to represent how employees are coping. This can be particularly useful if you manage remote or field workers.

It is the regularity and consistency of these questions and exercises which will set the culture and tone of the relationship, and will indicate to your employees that this is a workplace that encourages discussion around mental health. These questions and exercises also help managers to get to know their employees a bit more, so that they are able to identify when employees are behaving ‘out of character’. All employees experience slightly different levels of stress, depending on their background, personality, confidence, personal resilience and levels of work activity. Managers can’t be watching all their employees, at all times, hence they need to help employees take control of their own difficulties and articulate when they need help.

Ultimately, it’s the behaviour and attitudes of colleagues, managers and directors in the workplace that is the key determinant of whether an employee will go home at the end of the day feeling fulfilled, valued, confident and having a positive sense of purpose and wellbeing, or feeling diminished, miserable, isolated, anxious and ultimately demoralized and possibly depressed.

How good are your managers at managing mental health?

If you would like help to train your managers to better understand their role in managing mental health and reducing the prevalence of mental health issues and absence within your organisation, we’d be happy to talk through the opportunities available for you to do this.

Please call us on 01494 685315 or email [email protected]

*emojis – ideograms and smileys used in electronic messages and Web pages. The characters, which are used much like ASCII, emoticons or kaomoji, exist in various genres, including facial expressions, common objects, places and types of weather, and animals (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).