Managers and Mental Health: UKG Workforce Institute Weigh-In

February 2023 marks one year since we launched The Workforce Institute Weigh-In!

The Workforce Institute Weigh-In for February 2023: Our recent study found that managers impact employees’ mental health as much as their partners/spouses. What can managers do to support employees’ mental health?

Editor’s Note: Because mental health is a critical topic, we’ve included longer responses from our advisory board members this month than we typically do for The Workforce Institute Weigh-In.

“The hybrid-remote work model has required people leaders to create a workplace environment that recognizes the importance for human and social interaction among team members. Fact is, not everyone has the same reaction to working from home and being isolated from others. In addition to remote work, many employees are challenged with the burden of being caregivers and managing life events that are further exasperated by social instability and economic uncertainty. As a result, some employees may suffer from anxiety, stress, and depression, especially during the holiday season. Managers can support their employees’ mental health by conducting group and individual check-in meetings on a recurring basis, and, if possible, on camera. Check-ins should be used for both 1:1 meetings and group meetings, and both with a focus on the employee’s emotional wellbeing.

For 1:1 check-in meetings, managers should ask questions such as: How are you doing? What barriers may I remove? What challenges are you facing? Do you feel supported by your manager, with regard to requests for paid time off? Do you feel management provides you enough time, money, and resources to successfully accomplish what is being asked of you?

For group check-in meetings: allow people to be present; provide direction, clarity, and understanding; and reinforce trust and camaraderie among team members. There are a number of employees who may display a positive demeanor but have private struggles. Managers can do their part in supporting employees’ mental health by establishing regular check-in meetings where they can see and hear from employees themselves, ask relevant questions, and take applicable actions that provide employees the support they may need.” — Dr. Martin C. Armstrong, vice president, payroll shared services, Charter Communications

“Now, I never want to compare a manager to a spouse, because work is never ‘family’ — though, The Workforce Institute’s survey found managers impact employees’ mental health just as much as their spouses or partners — but managers should be good listeners and be able to offer resources. Managers should know enough about their folks to notice when something is not quite right. They should be equipped to ask, ‘How are things going?’ while seeking a genuine answer, and then offer resources like an employee assistance program, time off, leave, or reprioritization of work when those options make sense. It’s when managers don’t have the skills or tools to do this when they hurt employee mental health more than they help.” — Kate Bischoff, employment attorney, k8bisch, LLC

“The data shows that one in three employees say that managers fail to recognize the impact they have on their teams’ mental health. The good news is that two-thirds of managers recognize the impact they have. And there’s real opportunity for leadership to do more to help. So, what can they do beyond recognizing the resources the company has for employees to get help? Here are three actions:

1) Managers need to make that personal connection with their employees. It obviously helps to ‘humanize’ employees, allowing managers to empathize with and support their team members. It also helps to identify when an employee is struggling and may provide insight to help address those struggles. Therefore, it is important to take time and ensure that not all talk is work talk. Managers should have a sincere interest in their team members’ personal lives. If the manager does not want to get too personal, they can focus on the personal development of their employees.

2) Managers need to help employees find balance between work and personal life. Just like we need to have ‘hard conversations’ when employees aren’t doing enough at work, we have to have similar conversations when employees are spending too much time at work. Along these lines, managers need to demonstrate balance to avoid falling into the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ problem. This is true for balancing day-to-day work-life challenges as well as taking time off. For example, I had gotten into a terrible habit of emailing people over the weekend because I was working, although I did not expect my employees to be working. I realized that I was setting a bad example. So, I purposely tried to take more time off over the weekend, not check my email, and not send email. If I did need to send an email, I began scheduling emails to be sent on Monday after employees got to work.

3) Managers need to make sure that they take care of themselves, too. If you have poor mental health, you cannot help or support others as effectively. This plays a little bit into the previous point of setting a good example. The results of The Workforce Institute’s survey around the C-suite are shocking — 40% of C-level executives say they are likely to quit in the next 12 months — and illustrate the potential problem. Leadership sets the tone for any organization, whether it is a single store or a multinational enterprise. If a leader’s mental state is poor, it will contribute to a poor tone. If their mental state is strong, it will help strengthen everybody.” — Bob Clements, president, Axsium Group Ltd.

“There are two questions I’d encourage managers to consider. First is to ask themselves, ‘Am I under too much stress?’ If the answer is yes, then it will be hard for a manager to take care of their employees until they have taken care of themselves. The second thing to ask is, ‘Am I unknowingly hurting my employees’ mental health?’ It can easily be the case that the answer is yes, and the best way to find the answer is to ask a trusted person who knows your team what they think. Asking is obviously just a first step, but if you learn there is a problem, then you may be motivated to find a solution.” — David Creelman, CEO, Creelman Research

“Managers can put themselves in their employees’ shoes. How would they want to be treated in the particular situation? Oftentimes, the answer lies in one simple word: kindness.” — Julie Develin, co-host, The People Purpose Podcast

“To support mental health amongst employees is to recognize we all have mental struggles. Breaking down the barriers of, ‘Because I’m a people leader/manager, therefore I must exemplify perfection,’ is a false reality. The best way to support employees’ mental health journeys is to see them as individual people first, not a number or someone who works for me, and share your struggles in dealing with mental health challenges. That is exemplifying authentic leadership that drives overall wellbeing.” — Chas Fields, co-host, The People Purpose Podcast

“As the research outlines: provide an empathetic voice, enable and encourage time off, and treat people like people. I would say that most managers understand the importance of acting on each of these tips and work hard to model behaviors for their staff. But managers are often just as challenged to maintain a positive life-work balance and positive mental health as their staff. Organizations should support all managers in operationalizing these three tips. Ways to do this include: understanding and eliciting feedback as to how the staff is perceiving support from their managers; and providing group-think across managers to share what is working, to learn how to engage with staff across the spectrum of challenges they face, and identify where the organization can further improve processes and procedures to alleviate the stress that manifests itself in mental health concerns.” — Nanne Finis, chief nurse executive, UKG

“Leadership teams need to clearly define and hire to a specific set of credentials. Is the focus on governance and compliance, engagement, performance, or a combination of these? Companies focusing on leading instead of managing require a totally different set of skills that more properly align to today’s workforce. This means addressing the individual as an individual. Although it takes more work, more time, and more energy, the results of leading versus managing are clearly superior. The mental health of your workforce demands this approach.” — John Frehse, senior managing director, Ankura, and co-host, “No Suits, No Slides! video series

“There are three actions that immediately come to mind. Let’s start with a simple one: say thank you! The Gottmans [Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman] are famous psychologists who’ve studied 40,000 couples. The #1 most common phrase in successful long-term relationships? ‘Thank you.’And, like my colleague Kate mentioned above, while people are sometimes scared of applying ‘personal life’ advice to work, this one does apply: just say thank you when people do a good job. And be specific about what you’re thanking them for. It goes a long way.

Second, realize what is and isn’t urgent, and what is and isn’t a priority. From years working with organizational development, I could anecdotally tell you that managers who make everything a priority tend to destroy mental health the fastest. If an employee has a truly high-priority, urgent customer deadline or meeting, it is acceptable to ask them to prioritize work over family and life. That’s what you pay them a salary for. But, can you ask that for everything? No. Understand where the difference lies. As Cal Newport has explained well in The New Yorker, this lack of priority can be a huge factor in employee stress, burnout, and associated mental health challenges.

Third, lean into disengagement. This one is very hard for some managers to stomach, but leaning into this can be a blue-ocean-type strategy for you. You need to remember that a lot of managers do unfortunately confuse ‘busy’ and ‘productive’ (not the same thing), and many managers like to manage tasks, as opposed to actual things that move a needle. The focus on tasks and seat time is why employee surveillance options scaled since 2020, because, without a physical sight line to an employee, a lot of managers needed to know their keystrokes and eye movements and sites visited in order to understand if they were ‘working hard.’” — Dr. Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture, Culture Partners

“First and foremost, managers must ensure they enjoy a trust-based relationship with their employees. From this point, managers need to gain an understanding of the mental wellbeing of their
employees, on an individual basis, in order to offer meaningful support. Understanding the need for any mental health support at the induvial level is the key to success in this particular endeavor. The ideal way to understand the needs of any employee is through meaningful and open dialogue with each employee, and in a private setting. Once the manager gains this level of understanding, they can better consider solutions to assist the individual employee with their mental health needs. This approach can also help the manager prioritize the solutions among different employees, since each employee will have a different level of support needed, which can range from no support needed at all to needing significant programmatic support from external resources.” — Dennis Miller, associate vice president, HR and benefits administration, The Claremont Colleges

To learn more about the impacts of work on employees’ mental health, read The Workforce Institute’s study, Mental Health at Work: Managers and Money.