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Paul Barrett

Bank Workers Charity

Head of Wellbeing

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Line managers fundamental to good mental health


Paul Barrett is Head of Wellbeing at the Bank Workers Charity and will be speaking about a pilot programme they have delivered in association with mental health charity Mind on September 3rd at 8am in London.

One of the pressing issues of our time is how to improve the public perception of people experiencing mental health problems. The good news is that attitudes are changing for the better, with a 6% improvement over the last three years according to the National Attitudes to Mental Health survey.

This shift is mirrored in the workplace where we have seen major changes taking place in UK   businesses, with many organisations making improving mental health at work a strategic priority.

There is a growing recognition that you can’t isolate an individual at work from the whole person and that an employee’s struggles with a mental health problem will almost certainly spill over into the workplace at some stage. It’s therefore in employer’s interests to ensure that appropriate support is available, with many providing EAPs and Occupational Health Services to help those who need support.

This focus on mental health means that there has been a plethora of initiatives in the workplace to make the working environment more sensitive to the needs of those with mental health conditions. Deloitte and some of the major banks have created mental health champions. These are often senior managers who have experienced their own psychological difficulties and their role is to add credibility to internal campaigns and to send a supportive signal from the top, that the business treats the issue seriously.

In some organisations mental health first-aiders are trained to provide informal support and guidance to colleagues with mental health conditions. Mindfulness, a form of meditation that is proven to help with depression, is increasingly being offered in organisational settings to help build employee’s resilience.

In many instances CEOs have publicly thrown their weight behind such initiatives adding to the likelihood that they will gain traction.

Meanwhile external influences are also shaping the landscape around workplace mental health. Large numbers of UK businesses have signed up to the “Time to Change” campaign and in the City of London, wellbeing-focused organisations like Business Healthy, City Mental Health Alliance and Business in the Community, are actively promoting better management of mental health.

The extent of interest in the issue is exemplified by an event in September, hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of London, in which he will confirm the key role the City of London Corporation will play in the debate around psychological wellbeing in the capital.

There has never been so much momentum behind the idea of creating psychologically healthy workplaces and significant progress has undoubtedly been made. Indeed, 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable for top managers in major financial institutions to step forward and admit to their struggles with mental health issues.

There is a growing recognition that you can’t isolate an individual at work from the whole person.

Yet against this narrative of progress and organisational responsiveness there is an unexpected subplot. Despite all of the laudable developments outlined earlier, something counter-intuitive appears to be happening; the workplace experience of those suffering mental health problems appears to have changed little. It may even have deteriorated.

In a recent People Management survey of HR managers, 43% said that mental health among employees had worsened. CIPD’s absence management statistics reveal a continued climb in reported mental ill-health since 2010. Meanwhile, BUPA found that 60% of employees with mental health conditions weren’t happy about how they had been treated at work.

Most worryingly of all, in one survey 53% of respondents said they wouldn’t disclose a mental health problem to their employer or line manager. How do we square this bleak picture with the priority accorded to changing organisational culture for the better.

I believe that the support systems, policies, procedures and all the other initiatives businesses have implemented to date, do have a vital role to play. The problem is that the infrastructure designed to support those with mental health problems is set at too great a remove from the place where the situation surfaces organisationally – with the line manager.

This only serves to mythologise mental health as a complex issue, only understandable to and actionable by professional counsellors, occupational health professionals or specialist clinicians. This in turn deskills the line manager, making them feel unqualified to provide support to employees that are struggling.

The line manager is invariably the first organisational touch point for someone experiencing a mental health problem. So, if the manager handles the situation sensitively the great likelihood is that the employee will feel well supported, will be far less likely to go off sick and will find themselves directed towards the appropriate support systems.

Conversely, if handled poorly, because the manager lacks the inter-personal skills, the understanding of mental health issues or the confidence to have the conversation, then it is likely to go badly for both the employee and the business.

The line manager is invariably the first organisational touch point for someone experiencing a mental health problem.

I was recently invited to a diversity and inclusion network event at a large corporation about changing the way mental health issues were handled in the business. One of the senior managers attending spoke up to say “the problem lies with our line managers – they don’t have the understanding or the skills to deal with these issues with the sensitivity that’s needed.”  

Yet for most managers the problems isn’t a lack of desire to help; it’s a lack of confidence in their skills to handle the situation properly and it can result in them shying away from the conversation, often for fear of making it worse.

Line managers really don’t need to be experts in mental health. They aren’t counsellors, nor should they feel that they need to be. In most of the situations a line manager is likely to face, an empathic, concerned and compassionate approach is all that is required to communicate support to a distressed colleague.

In my view, developing line manager’s soft skills and their understanding of mental health conditions are the missing pieces in the jigsaw, without which the other measures will never be fully effective. So for businesses serious about dealing with mental health at work this is where the focus of attention needs to be.

If they can equip line managers with the right skills and awareness, not only will they find that mental health problems will be  managed more sensitively,  they will see that the same goes for the handling of  a host of other common workplace situations such as disputes between staff, bereavements and even performance reviews.

Changing organisational culture is intrinsically difficult but a great deal has already been achieved to make workplaces more psychologically healthy.

Giving line managers the skills and the confidence to play their part is the way to finish the job.

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Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing

Read more from Paul Barrett

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