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Mental Health at Work: Five ways managers could make a difference

Managing people isn’t easy. Much of the time, managers have become managers because they’re good at something else, and the support and development we give to managers to do their new role effectively is insufficient or non-existent.

Add to that the unfortunately-still-with-us squeamishness around mental health, and one of the trickiest things that can happen to you as a manager is have a team member disclose that they are experiencing poor mental health. I’ve been on both sides of good and bad versions of this conversation, and have some thoughts on how managers could handle it more effectively.

Seek first to understand

Opening up about mental health is still more difficult than it should be, and if a colleague has allowed themselves to be vulnerable and share with you, that in itself is an achievement. So give that moment its due and focus on the individual and their experience. Ask questions that will help them describe their perspective and their challenges, and be prepared to feel some discomfort in their answers, especially if you’re not used to people showing vulnerability or emotion at work. And above all, listen to what they’re saying rather then thinking of your response.

Don't try to fix them

The mistake many managers make is that they feel they need to come up with a solution to the situation in that first conversation. You don’t. It's not your job to make your colleague ‘better’, it’s your job to help them feel supported. Resist the need to suggest solutions at this stage unless they specifically ask for something, focusing instead on jointly understanding where they are now.

Don't assume it's Not Work

The default position of most organisations is that poor mental health is something you bring to work with you - that a mental health impact in work is more than likely caused by or related to something pre-existing. Of course, this is sometimes the case, but given how much of our lives are spent at work or working, it’s equally likely that the cause is directly related to work.

The phrase that you hear a lot here is ‘the nature of the job’; that potential triggers for an adverse mental health impact, such as high workload, long hours or demanding customers are part and parcel of the role and that anyone unable to ‘cope’ with these factors is in the wrong role. I’d argue the number of roles where these triggers genuinely cannot be mitigated is much, much smaller than generally accepted, and are virtually nonexistent in knowledge work.

Think long-term and systemic

The standard manager responses to mental health concerns are time off and the Employee Assistance Programme. Sometimes these can give short-term benefits, although in my experience the level of support offered by EAPs varies wildly. More to the point, neither of these interventions address root cause and exist primarily to move the burden of responsibility away from the organisation. Instead (or as well as), look at the broader context the individual operates in at work - what factors could be harmful to their mental health, and how might those factors be alleviated? Rather than thinking exclusively about individual adjustments, are there opportunities for broader improvements which would benefit the wellbeing of the wider team or department?

Expect and accept some responsibility

It’s very possible that as the individual’s manager you have at some point contributed to, or exacerbated, their current situation. Be open to that possibility, ask for the feedback and take it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Amongst all the HR guidelines, line management best practice, mental health training and well-meaning blogs like this one, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really going on - a human being with whom you have a relationship is struggling and needs your help and support. Keep that in mind, and everything else will fall into place.

If you would like to talk through how else we can support your organisation and your teams please do get in touch with our Director of Wellbeing, Gemma Carter-Morris on

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