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Workplace Wellbeing Management Today

Workplace Wellbeing Management


Around 300,000 people with a long-term mental health condition lose their jobs each year according to the 2017 UK Government commissioned Stevenson-Farmer review. This is an alarming figure. The human cost is woefully high, as is the financial burden on businesses: poor mental health is estimated to cost employers between £33bn and £42bn a year in sick pay and lost productivity. So how can organisations better support individuals with mental health problems to remain and thrive in work? Employees are affected by a multitude of pressures, both at work and in their personal lives. Line managers, given their position within an organisation, are often best placed to spot the signs of poor mental health in the workplace and – if equipped with the right skill set – can manage issues effectively before they reach crisis point. Their actions and behaviour also have a direct impact on employee wellbeing: a good line manager will foster the kind of
working environment that makes employees feel valued, respected and supported, and will act as a ‘gatekeeper’ protecting them from any working conditions that present risks to their mental wellbeing. Conversely, a bad line manager can aggravate and, in some cases, even be the cause of stress, anxiety and depression. 

Management Today and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) set out to examine the role line managers play in promoting positive mental health in the workplace. We conducted a survey of more than 400 employees from a variety of businesses across the UK to get a clearer picture of what is being done in the workplace to support those with mental health problems. Our sample was split into two groups to enable us to evaluate the results from each group appropriately: one group comprised managers who have employees reporting directly to them, the other comprised managers without any direct reports.

KEY FINDING Line managers lack support and training:

Worryingly, 62% of line managers that took part in our survey say they don’t get enough help from their organisation to support the mental wellbeing of their staff. If line managers are to be effective in promoting positive mental health in the workplace, it is vital they understand how to manage fluctuations in workers’ mental health, what the causes of ill-health can be, how to recognise when employees may be unwell, and how to advise on where to access further support. Armed with this knowledge, they can shape the work environment to be conducive to positive mental health and wellbeing. These are all things that can be achieved through proper training, but as our survey results show, many businesses are failing to adequately educate their line managers. Only 31% of respondents say they feel they have been sufficiently trained to recognise the signs of poor mental health in their direct reports. More than half (57%) say their organisation offers no mental health and wellbeing training and/or support for managerial staff. Those that do have training and support in place within their organisation report in most cases it is optional (79%) rather than mandatory (22%). Taking into account that businesses have both a legal and moral duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, training senior staff to deal with mental health issues should be a top priority. Employers are already required by law to provide
proportionate advice or training on health and safety, and IOSH believes it is now a matter of time before regulators sharpen their focus on mental health. Line managers can be a key asset in creating healthier, happier and more productive workforces and helping their employers comply with the law, providing they are equipped with the relevant skills.

KEY FINDING A reactive approach:

Our results indicate businesses are not being proactive enough when it comes to tackling poor mental health in the workplace. Less than half of managers in both sample groups (45% of line managers with direct reports and 49% of managers without) say their organisation is proactive in support of the mental health of its employees. When questioned on the types of services in place within their organisation to support staff, reactive measures such as counselling and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) featured highly, with fewer participants referring to proactive measures such as stress risk assessments and mental resilience techniques. While counselling and MHFA can offer a great deal to someone experiencing mental health problems, what they do not address is the need to create a culture which prevents physical or mental ill health from occurring in the first place. IOSH believes they should form part of a more comprehensive, prevention-first programme
that empowers line managers to create the types of working environment that promote positive mental health and wellbeing.

As with many workplace problems, a proactive approach is far more effective, and prevention is always better than cure. According to IOSH, all mental illness caused by work is avoidable and unnecessary. Adopting a proactive approach also makes good business sense. Creating an environment where positive wellbeing is actively encouraged and behaviours and policies that inhibit positive mental health called out as unacceptable reduces the potential costs of mental-health-related sickness, absence and presenteeism – when staff turn up to work but are unproductive when they get there.

KEY FINDING Still a taboo:

Much has been done to improve the stigma of mental health in the workplace in recent years. Many UK companies have taken positive steps to providing caring workplaces and changing negative attitudes and behaviours. However, our results show the pace of change is too slow. A staggering 80% of respondents say they would be reluctant to discuss their mental health with their line manager for fear of being seen as incapable in their role. A further 30% express concern it would lead to them being treated differently and receiving special treatment. One participant comments: “I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression but never admitted to it at work for fear of being stigmatised.” Equally, managers can be reluctant to bring up the subject, often for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing – 33% of line managers in our survey say they ‘rarely’ (22%) or even ‘never’ (11%) discuss mental health and wellbeing with their direct reports, while 48%
say they discuss the issue only ‘occasionally’. In fact, our results highlight that more employees would feel comfortable discussing their own mental health with their colleagues (25%), a confidential support service (25%), or a independent service outside of work (24%), than with their line manager (18%).

It is clear much more work still needs to be done on creating the kinds of workplace environments and company cultures where employees are able to divulge any issues they might have without fear of harming their career prospects or being stigmatised. With the right knowledge in how to deal with these types of scenarios, line managers can confidently address issues head on and have conversations with their staff to help them deal with their difficulties. Staying silent and doing nothing only makes things worse.


The results from our survey show line managers have a fundamental role to play in the promotion of positive mental health in the workplace. The positive impact they can have on the wellbeing of their direct reports is huge, therefore it is vital
they receive the best possible support from their organisations to empower them to champion positive mental health within the workplace. Our findings evidence that much more work needs to be done from the top. Organisations need to take a more proactive approach to building and maintaining a positive, supportive workplace culture – early action can make a vast amount of difference in helping avert any issues or nip them in the bud before they escalate. Businesses also need to work hard to break down the taboos surrounding mental health and create more open lines of communication. They need to support their managers to fulfil their role by equipping them with the skills and knowledge to promote positive mental health, but without placing unrealistic expectations on them.  In return, they will reap the rewards of happier, healthier, more engaged and productive employees.

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