Middle managers might be inadvertently sabotaging mental health initiatives

February 7, 2023, 12:51 PM UTC
Emotionally stressed business woman.
Managers have as great of an impact on employees’ mental health as their spouses, according to a new report from UKG.
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Good morning!

Here’s a scary thought: Your middle managers might be unwittingly sabotaging your company’s mental health efforts.

According to a new report from HR management services company UKG, managers have as great of an impact on employees’ mental health as their spouses and even more of an impact than their doctors or therapists. Yet many workers don’t feel comfortable discussing work-related challenges with managers. 

“That kind of blew me away,” Pat Wadors, chief people officer at UKG, tells Fortune. Thirty-eight percent of employees surveyed by UKG said they “rarely” or “never” talk with their managers when the workload becomes overwhelming. “They’re suffering in silence, and they’re not finding a way to have that conversation.”

Opening that line of communication and cutting down on work-related stress and burnout requires HR leaders to provide more training, support, and guidance to develop better bosses.

“I think we put so much pressure on the manager, and we don’t give them enough scaffolding,” says Wadors.

Employers should start with soft-skills training like people management and EQ training, which often gets overlooked but is necessary for team members to trust their managers and show up authentically.

“It’s this tension of giving [managers] the foundational skills, the emotional intelligence, the compassion, the empathy, and the listening skills just to be present. They don’t have to solve everything,” Wadors says, adding, “That humanity side of managers is usually not in your manager 101 courses.”

Because of this, Wadors advises employers to model the desired behavior from the top down. It can be as simple as encouraging the most senior leaders to ask their direct reports how they’re feeling during one-on-one meetings or providing guidance on properly running these meetings to help strengthen the manager-employee relationship.

Wadors also recommends that HR heads utilize technology to nudge managers to check in with employees and instruct what questions to ask. Though this might sound prescriptive, it teaches managers how to better engage with their team and reduces the fear of making mistakes.

“As leadership, it’s about saying we welcome the perfectly imperfect and embracing the growth mindset,” she says. “That’s very empowering and reduces angst.”

Moreover, it allows leaders to create space for managers to also care for their mental health.

“How do I give people like them—and me in my function—a pressure relief valve? Who do we talk to when we’re done listening, and our cup is too full or too overwhelmed? How do we support that ecosystem?” Wadors asks.

Amber Burton

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