Faced with pressures from above and cries of help from below, managers have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic. Firms are waking up to the benefits of offering them targeted wellbeing support.
Most people are familiar with the analogy of putting on one’s own oxygen mask before looking after others. For line managers looking after teams during the pandemic, this could not be more relevant.
The challenges they have faced and continue to face are legion: having to manage people remotely, dealing with questions about new working arrangements, hearing stories about family illness and isolation – all while being expected to meet their own targets and juggle their own domestic and work situations. For this reason, should organisations be more deliberate about how they support their managers?
“We often forget that managers are employees too and that they have their own struggles,” says Andrew Heath, CEO of employee engagement platform WeThrive. “This is uncharted territory for everyone so it’s a big ask to expect line managers to cope with some of the things they’ve faced in the past 18 months.” WeThrive’s own engagement data from clients has shown that managers as a group often suffer lower levels of wellbeing than those in other roles.
One of the biggest challenges facing managers is that they will often be working outside their remit. “It’s a perfect storm,” says clinical and business psychologist Dr Rebecca Holt, from Working Mindset, “because as humans we crave predictability, consistency and a clear plan. Managers are facing a host of challenges they’ve never had to deal with before. Many won’t have the training in managing mental health, and will be worried about saying the wrong thing.”
At the same time, many will want to project an aura of infallibility to those more senior to them. “It can be seen as a badge of honour to be seen as coping with long hours and not to be seen as vulnerable,” she adds. “If there’s not a culture of psychological safety to say how they’re feeling they’ll be trying to protect their teams but hiding their own vulnerability.”
In the billable hours culture of legal and professional services firms, carving time out for managers to ask their teams about their levels of stress can seem counterintuitive because it means time taken away from hours spent on client projects.
Dr Holt argues that firms should create an environment where colleagues are not made to feel guilty for looking after their own wellbeing or making time for others. “We have to take mental health provision out of that and factor it into the day, or there is a huge risk of it not happening. It needs to be strategic,” she says.
Law firm Kingsley Napley, for example, has placed the focus on all colleagues taking time out in its new physical office arrangements, with enhanced facilities such as a wellbeing suite with an exercise studio, relaxation room and a cafe.
To enable this to happen, however, there needs to be a culture of trust and psychological safety in place, says Harry Bliss, founder of Champion Health, a wellbeing platform. Bliss lost a mentor to suicide after a bout of extreme workplace stress and believes breaking down the stigma to say “we’re not OK” is crucial, particularly at leadership level.
“If managers feel they might be punished, they won’t open up and be honest about their own wellbeing,” he explains. “If they don’t, then employees don’t, and it cascades down the organisation.” Training line managers to recognise the signs of stress in themselves and their teams should be as high a priority as mandatory fire and physical health and safety training, he argues.
Mills & Reeve, which won People in Law’s Best Health and Wellbeing Initiative award for larger firms, takes a holistic approach to supporting its employees. As well as all-staff wellbeing Zoom meetings during the pandemic, it has held sessions specifically targeted at parents and carers, people living alone and those dealing with bereavement. An external mental health solution specialist Keith Goddard hosted a webinar for partners and senior managers.
Head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing Natasha Broomfield-Reid says: “We provided managers with specific advice on how they could manage their teams, how they could offer mental health adjustments, even how to start a conversation with someone on mental health, as it’s something we can all find difficult.” The company’s ‘Fit for the Future’ strategy for hybrid working suggests employees take a 50/50 split between the home and the office, but is deliberately flexible. “If someone needs to come into the office all the time for wellbeing reasons, that’s fine. There is guidance, but it’s not hard and fast,” Broomfield-Reid adds.
She estimates there are around 300 working patterns in use around the firm, so managers are used to overseeing teams that work in diverse ways. Since the start of the pandemic, the firm has increased wellbeing support for colleagues’ home lives as well as when they are at work. This includes support sessions on digital wellbeing (being able to draw boundaries and switching off); financial wellbeing and resilience; and reviewing or creating policies on drugs and alcohol and domestic abuse.
Taking on too much
Managers, particularly if it’s their first senior role, can be tempted to take on the work themselves, however. “The desire to help can turn them into feeling a bit of a martyr,” says Andy Gibson, founder of wellbeing support company Mindapples. “But they need to remember that they too are a resource and need to look after themselves. If not, people may not seek support from you as they think you’re even more stressed than them.”
Gibson advocates training managers to set boundaries as to what they can achieve and to consider wellbeing in decisions. “You always need an eye on what the business needs but also the wellbeing of your staff,” he adds. “As long as the business is taking wellbeing seriously, then people will feel they have more freedom to make these choices.”
This will become crucial as organisations prepare to welcome employees back to physical workspaces, even on a flexible or hybrid basis. “There may be situations where the boss is saying people have to come back but someone refuses,” says Gibson. “But if the leadership gives permission to take personal circumstances into account, managers can deal with each case in a common sense way. It’s about balancing personal circumstances with what the business needs.”
Heath from WeThrive argues that while employee pulse surveys can give a generic view of stress or happiness levels, asking more targeted questions can uncover many issues that can be easily resolved. “It might be something like the way a manager issues instructions or holds meetings,” he says. Making small changes can cumulatively have a big impact on wellbeing if managers have the right information.
While ‘freedom day’ may have passed and restrictions eased, the pandemic-related complexities managers have to deal with seem to be increasing rather than diminishing. It is more crucial than ever for organisations to offer them targeted support.