Employee mental health worries? Look to the line manager

COVID-19-inspired, company-wide programmes can only go so far.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2020
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Food for thought

Coronavirus isn’t the only pandemic alive in the world today. Shadowing it is a crisis in mental health problems, the extremity of which we’ll only fully appreciate after COVID-19 has subsided. 

The virus has created something of a perfect storm. On the one hand, people are afraid for themselves and their families, perhaps grieving. Millions have either lost their jobs, been furloughed or fear that this could happen over the next months. 

On the other, social isolation has cast many into the grips of loneliness, and forced upon others an extraordinary environment of increased caring responsibilities in decreased space.

Many businesses have rightly sought to do their bit to improve this situation. Protecting employees from infection comes first, and for office-based work this has been relatively straightforward - close the offices.

But remote working poses all sorts of problems too, smudging the essential boundaries between home and work life and wreaking havoc on effective organisational communication - as many will be discovering, it’s far too easy to replace the usual dynamics of face-to-face contact with sterile, emotionally unintelligent email barrages, or to lean too strongly the other way with a suffocating stream of video conferences. 

What can an employer do to fight the pandemic of mental health problems, while operating remotely? Many HR departments have made mental health and wellbeing resources available to employees, but these come with problems, especially when they are accessed at a distance.

“So many of the support services offered by businesses are self-service; how do you make sure people are accessing the support that is most appropriate for their need? There is often a fine line between a professional duty of care and respecting and protecting the privacy of employees,” says Hemal Desai, global medical director, vHealth, at medical insurance company Aetna International.

Effective support from the employer also depends on a person’s line manager playing their role - there’s little point in telling people to go for a socially responsible walk every afternoon and shut down their laptops at 5pm sharp, if their boss is still on their case every night at 9pm.

“Line managers are key to employee health and wellbeing at all times but are particularly critical during this current crisis. Behaviours such as listening, empathy and providing flexibility are crucial to supporting staff and helping them to focus and perform.

"If anything, managers need to dedicate more time to having one-to-one conversations with people who are working from home as the informal conversations and cues that support normal interaction in the workplace are missing,” says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at HR professional body the CIPD.

Good line managers need to become comfortable with video conferencing and engaging with people remotely, especially as the lurch towards home working is likely to be a long-term trend.

Aside from taking care not to exacerbate their team members’ mental health problems themselves, managers are also in a unique position to spot when someone is struggling to cope, alerting both the business and the employee in question, and helping them get the appropriate support.

Aetna’s Desai sounds a note of caution, however. “Managers need to be educated and supported beyond an email and a webpage. They are not diagnosticians and shouldn’t be expected to triage low lying mental health conditions if they are not equipped to do so.” 

Beyond formal training, which clearly has its place, the support given to line managers needs to come from the leadership. People know whether they are in an organisation that cares about them, because they can see it in the actions of people who have power. 

From a leader’s perspective, therefore, the best thing you can do to encourage caring behaviour in your frontline and middle managers is to show it in the way you treat them. Even at a distance, a culture of compassion starts at the top.

Image credit: Theo Wargo/WireImage

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