The benefits of great line management and good mental health in the workplace

30 September 2015

The line management relationship is key to mental health in the workplace.

It is great when health at work and promoting wellbeing becomes part of an organisation’s culture – it helps people to engage authentically with their work and colleagues. But if the first level of connection between individual staff members and the authority of the organisation isn’t right, there is always going to be a problem.

So why is it key?

First and foremost, the line management relationship is the space in which the work of the individual in the wider organisation is discussed, directed and supported. It is that relationship in which the employee is most empowered to communicate officially with the organisation.

The principles of good management and good business practice are, by and large, principles which contribute to the development of a mentally healthy workplace. If your performance management and appraisal systems allow people to explore and develop their talent and give, receive and integrate feedback then people will feel valued and fairly treated.

The line management relationship is also likely to be the context in which concerns about wellbeing, performance or progress are like to arise. This means that line managers are uniquely placed to recognise distress.

Mental health is not complicated. You don’t have to be a doctor or a therapist as a manager – an open-door policy and an understanding culture gives the best possible opportunity to solve problems.

First contact is key in distress. Stigma remains a significant barrier to help seeking, both in terms of fear of discrimination and in terms of internalised self-stigma related to perceptions of weakness or incompetence. A positive first discussion about distress can create a pattern of hope and an expectation of understanding and empathy. An ambivalent or negative discussion can create a pattern of uncertainty, or reinforce embarrassment, self-stigma, or at worst confirm fears of discrimination.

We all have times when we can’t cope. We are often clear about how we support a colleague or team member through bereavement, a divorce, or with caring responsibilities. The same skills of empathy, flexibility, time, boundaries and support apply in supporting staff in distress.

As managers, we are now under more pressure than ever to deliver, develop and to ensure delivery from our teams. There has never been less space in which to develop and conduct line management, supervision and development. Yet there has never been a more important time to create an environment in which people can succeed, and feel supported.

There are very few workplaces in today’s economy in which resilience (the ability to manage challenge) is not a key asset and in which change is not a regular motif of organisational life. Workplaces and managers should be aware of evidence-based tools such as mindfulness and supporting physical activities that can support resilience. Equally, they should recognise that responsibility for this lies not just with the individual but also with the organisation, where co-ordinated strategies for promoting mental health and increasing management skills in this area can reap dividends which are far more than financial.

The Mental Health Foundation offers a range of services, training and development to promote and develop mental health at work. Please contact Chris O'Sullivan at corporate@mentalhealth.org.uk.

Top tips for line managers

  • Know your organisation’s policies. You should know the boundaries of what you can offer in terms of support and flexibility. Being consistent within these policies is key; you then have latitude to reach out.
  • Know what support you can call on. Do you have HR or occupational health support for instance? Nobody expects you to be a doctor, or an employment law specialist. Your job is to connect with your team. That might be in recognising a problem, or in offering practical support on an ongoing basis.
  • Have resources to hand. If you have contact details for Samaritans in your phone, for example, you can provide useful resources then and there
  • Know yourself. You will know where your boundaries are as a manager and as a human being. If you have relevant personal experience, consider using it if you feel safe in doing so. Equally, if you have personal concerns that make it hard for you to engage with particular issues, be aware of those.
  • Don’t give stigma a home. You should address any bullying or ‘joking’ in a team in relation to an individual and lead from the front in welcoming people and supporting them.
  • People who experience mental health problems are the experts in their lives and their needs. You learn a lot about yourself and your needs when you have a breakdown. When it’s appropriate, ask, and never assume.
  • If you have doubts, treat someone as you would want to be treated, and how you would treat anybody who was experiencing another kind of distress, or a serious illness.

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