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Managers Play a Key Role in Employee Mental Health: Here’s How You Can Support Them

Workplace collaborationA recent study found that managers have a greater impact on our mental health than doctors and therapists, and equal to that of spouses and partners.1 So what can managers do, especially in our post-pandemic world of work, to be more mindful of how their actions might contribute to stress and burnout among their employees? We’ll discuss some ideas in this week’s blog.

We’ve all heard the old adage that people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.

While the recent trends of “quiet quitting” and the “Great Resignation” were in part prompted by a pandemic-influenced reevaluation of work and life, it’s no secret that managers play a major role in whether employees choose to stay with a company or leave.

And, considering we spend up to a third of our lives at work, it makes sense that a good portion of our worry and stress originates from our jobs. This is backed up by a global study from the Workforce Institute at UKG, which found:

  • 60% of employees say their job is the biggest factor influencing their mental health;
  • 81% of employees would prioritize good mental health over a high-paying job; and
  • 64% admit they would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness.2

The good news is that we seem to be entering a new era of the manager/employee relationship.

In the past, employees were encouraged to maintain walls between work life and home life, and managers were trained not to pry into employees’ personal lives, lest they cross some legal boundary. Not so anymore. Our experience with the pandemic taught us that we can never truly compartmentalize our lives, nor should we. Now, the best companies and managers realize that leading with caring and empathy and supporting employee well-being, including mental health, is essential for keeping their best people.

But what kinds of manager behaviors tend to cause stress and negatively impact employee mental health?

Micromanaging and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, not setting clear expectations for work, tend to be big ones. Not providing enough recognition can also cause employees to become demoralized and disengaged. Of course, the expectation to work long hours or constantly be available—whether stated or implied—contributes to exhaustion and eventually burnout.

Finally, while the corporate world has made much progress on this front, there are still managers who create hostile work environments through subtle and not-so-subtle harassment, microaggressions and even gaslighting. This can severely impact employees’ mental health.

So in addition to modifying some of the above behaviors, how can we support managers in creating a less stressful work environment?

Teach empathy.

While being empathetic comes naturally to some managers, it’s not true for all. After all, many managers were promoted to lead teams based on their own job success, not necessarily because they are inherently good people managers. In today’s stressful world, it’s important to train managers to demonstrate more caring, concern and understanding of the feelings and circumstances of their employees.

Give managers the tools and training to have conversations about mental health.

Managers are often the first to recognize that something just isn’t right with an employee, so make sure they have tools like:

  • Tip sheets for how to talk about mental health in the workplace and how to recognize when people are struggling.
  • A one-pager on the mental health benefits available at the company, or a card they can hand out with the phone number of the Employee Assistance Program.
  • Scripts for starting meetings with a “mental health minute,” or at least encouragement to begin meetings with a quick “how are you?” check-in.

Encourage them to practice psychological safety on their teams.

A psychologically safe workplace is one where people feel they can be themselves and won’t be embarrassed, rejected, or humiliated for speaking up; this kind of environment can decrease stress on teams. Leaders and managers can create psychological safety by showing their own vulnerability, practicing benefit of the doubt, and encouraging open dialogue.

Role-model healthy behaviors.

Urge senior leaders and managers to set a good example by actively (and outwardly) focusing on health. Doing so gives employees “permission” to devote time to their own health, and sends the signal that well-being is an integral part of the corporate culture, not just a nice-to-have. Actions can include:

  • Asking leaders to block time on their calendars for fitness or meditation.
  • Encouraging managers to be open about taking time off to care for themselves—physically and mentally—or others in their life who need care.
  • Reminding managers to be mindful of sending emails after hours or on weekends.

Acknowledge employees’ lives outside of work.

As we mentioned earlier, there are fewer boundaries between work and life than ever before. So continue to encourage managers to acknowledge and be curious about employees’ lives beyond the work day, including inquiring about family, personal passions, or even pets. Employee Resource Groups can be a great forum for this type of sharing, too.

As we approach May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s all keep in mind just how much our jobs influence how we think, act and feel long after we end the workday. Managers certainly don’t need to be mental health counselors, but it’s important for them to be aware of the messages they send and actions they take (or don’t take) that have a bearing on the mental health of their employees. For more ideas on how you can support your managers, click here.

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