Are line-managers being left to do the ‘heavy-lifting’ when it comes to managing wellbeing?

Thanks to research, especially by The Work Foundation, organisations are now aware that an employee’s long-term productivity depends on more than just talent, drive or even interpersonal skills. It’s also vital that an individual’s wellbeing and personal circumstances are taken into account because this can have a powerful effect on their motivation, focus and performance.

The challenge of performance management for today’s HR professionals was an important theme at The Work Foundation and Prospect conference that I attended on 8 December 2014. However, as I listened to the excellent speakers, I became more convinced that learning and development departments could play a more prominent role when it comes to promoting and managing wellbeing in the workplace. At the moment, I believe line-managers are being left to do the ‘heavy lifting’ when it comes to managing wellbeing without sufficient or appropriate training.

This was brought into sharp focus just a few days later when a survey of over 2,000 British employees revealed that 34% of workers surveyed had hidden an illness from their boss, including chronic illness and long-term mental health problems. Meanwhile, a separate poll by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) of over 1,300 UK workers found two fifths (41%) of workers felt their job has had a negative impact on their health while 21% were worried their stress levels could lead to a heart attack.

But although the research shows that many people are at work and performing well, despite being affected by stress or health concerns, many organisations have a black and white approach – employees who are in the office are assumed, by definition, to be well. If an employee is struggling, this is often seen as a performance or competence matter for their line manager to investigate and address, rather than an underlying wellbeing issue.

Often, active management of health and wellbeing focuses on ‘making work a safe place’ for people to talk openly about their stress or illnesses so they can get the help they need. However, line managers are often not in the best position to discuss wellbeing with those in their team. They have a power relationship with the members of their teams which make them an unlikely confidant. It’s not unreasonable for employees to fear negative consequences, such as losing out on promotion or losing their job if they speak about their wellbeing. The mental health charity Mind has previously reported that one in five workers would not disclose stress or mental health issues to their manager for fear of being placed first in line for redundancy.

Many managers have simply not been trained in how to discuss and manage team wellbeing while respecting individual privacy. Wellbeing isn’t even mentioned in many management training programmes!

Sadly, this can mean that employees will not have access to the help and support that enables them to manage their health more effectively and potentially increase their productivity. This matters for their employer as much as the individual affected.

So what is the answer?

First, I believe that line managers need better training and support in this important area: it should be a core part of any management training scheme and managers faced with a wellbeing concern should be able to call on support, either from the HR team or confidential helplines such as EAPs. It’s also vital that training emphasises the prevalence of wellbeing challenges so managers understand the likelihood of people in every team being affected, even if this is not readily apparent.

But while line-managers should always be encouraged to have a humane and open style, they shouldn’t solely be thrust into the role of ‘wellbeing gatekeepers’. Instead, employers (and HR professionals) must also take responsibility for providing their employees with confidential, off-the-record access to support services, so that early interventions are more likely and more effective self-management can be encouraged wherever possible.

In short, organisations must ensure that employee wellbeing becomes part of their workplace culture, from the top down.

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