These days, being a manager involves a lot. And we mean A LOT.
In addition to the technical skills needed for operational management, people managers must possess the soft skills to support their employee’s mental health both proactively (i.e. demonstrate positive wellbeing behaviors and implement protocols that foster a thriving and healthy culture) and reactively (i.e. have an understanding of mental ill health and how the manager/the organisation can support recovery/signpost helpful services and resources).
However, during a recent wellbeing conference, Francois Woolley, the Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at ACAS, highlighted an emerging trend. She noted that an increasing number of managers acknowledge these ‘softer’ responsibilities but lack the confidence to approach mental health at work. They feel ill-prepared to handle the subject matter and need clarification about the professional expectations and boundaries when providing support.
This sentiment is supported by mental health charity Mind’s latest Workplace Wellbeing Index. The study of 41,927 employees across 119 organisations found that line managers had less confidence in their abilities to support and promote mental health than in the previous period and that employee perceptions of the support provided by line managers had declined too.
So, in response to the above findings, we have written a short guide for people managers, offering what we hope is some clarity and confidence on the subject of supporting employee mental health.
Let’s start at the beginning: what is mental health? Mental health is a person's emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It encompasses how an individual thinks, feels, and acts, impacting their ability to handle stress, make decisions, and relate to others.
Common signs and symptoms of poor mental health (to look out for within your team) might include changes in mood, increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal from social interactions, a more disheveled or tired appearance, and sudden changes in weight. However, recognising when an employee may require additional support more often comes down to knowing your team well and being attentive to behaviors that deviate from their usual patterns.
If something feels ‘off’ to you about a colleague’s behaviour or demeanour, never doubt yourself, there is absolutely no harm in checking in and asking (in an appropriate setting and in an appropriate way) if they’re doing okay.
Having an awareness of the law, as it pertains to employee mental health and your duty of care, is an important part of a manager’s mental health education too. You can get the lowdown on UK legislation in our recent article, here.
Conversations about mental health can feel intimidating for a variety of reasons. The prevailing stigma surrounding mental health often contributes to people's nervousness and discomfort. To address this, we believe that providing a clear framework for these conversations can significantly enhance one’s confidence in approaching this sensitive topic - like this one, right here!
When having these conversations, keeping several, critical points in mind is essential:
• You are there to listen well and ask (open-ended) questions when needed
• You should be fully present, open (non-judgemental), and empathetic
• You are not there to fix their problems, give advice or make comparisons
• You should check back in regularly e.g. “I’m here to chat whenever you need to.”
Managers are not mental health professionals and nor should they be expected to be. Though, they can be good listeners, provide practical support (for example, helping an employee manage a stressful workload by adjusting their priorities), and be crucial in signposting employees to helpful resources. These resources may include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), the organisation's Mental Health First Aider, or helplines where individuals can seek professional support.
Another confusing boundary is making physical contact, such as giving someone a hug or a reassuring shoulder squeeze when they’re distressed. We always advise asking for consent before initiating physical contact, ensuring the person is comfortable with it, i.e. “Can I give you a hug?” or “I’m just going to put my hand on your shoulder. Is that okay with you?” However, in situations where someone is agitated or having a panic attack, it is generally best to refrain from touching them, as it may exacerbate their distress.
We generally advise against contact outside of working hours even for wellbeing 'check-ins' (apart from in very rare circumstances) as it tends to erode boundaries and doesn't give the manager an opportunity to switch off.
And the final boundary/boundaries discussed in this article are… your own. Your wellbeing is just as important as anybody else’s on the team, and something we encourage you to prioritise in whatever ways work for you. It’s important that we ‘fill up our cup’ to be able to pour from it.
Creating a healthy, happy workplace culture is crucial for the wellbeing of employees. And this is something, it turns out, that managers have a massive effect on! The Workforce Institute's 2023 study found that managers have just as much impact on people’s mental health as their spouse does (both 69%) — that’s even more than their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%)!
A positive workplace culture is psychologically safe. Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Professor, Amy Edmondson, and refers to an environment where individuals feel safe to take risks, speak up, and be authentic without fear of negative consequences. The most important pillar of which (for managers) is leading by example. Edmondson suggests managers model vulnerability and openness by admitting their mistakes and, discussing what was learned from them, seeking feedback, and acknowledging the contributions of others.
However, creating a culture of wellbeing is just as much about not encouraging/role-modeling behaviors that can have a detrimental impact on employee wellbeing, as it is encouraging those positive ones – such as working long hours/over lunchtimes, micro-managing of tasks, leaving workloads and priorities unchecked.
So, there we are. We hope this article has answered some questions and eased some worries about managing mental health at work. Here at Luminate, we offer in-depth training that equips managers with the skills and confidence to take ownership of the mental health culture within their workplace and to appropriately support the wellbeing of their reports. If you want to know more, or still have questions about employee mental health, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us here.