To manage and mitigate risk, give managers ongoing wellbeing education.

Whether it's a holistic approach or a targeted short session, evidence suggests organisations should invest in wellbeing education and support for managers.

Anybody who’s spent time in the workforce knows a direct manager can shape your relationship with the job – and make or break it.

One aspect of this is a leader’s emphasis and ability when it comes to staff wellbeing. If an employee believes their manager cares about their overall health and stress levels and can help mitigate the impacts work has on it, they’re not only less likely to leave, it’s probable they’ll experience a productivity boost.

If you could support a manager to be better at this, that would be a valuable thing. The good news is that the research suggests this is possible. However, it’s important to outline what we mean by wellbeing.  

There are multiple definitions we could use, but let’s focus on two. The first is more limited, a manager who has some grounding in warning signs for mental and physical distress and how to address them appropriately. The second is more holistic and refers to a manager who’s aware that the nature of a job can affect your wellbeing and is more proactive.

Both definitions are useful, support is available for both, and both improve outcomes. So let’s go through them, beginning with holistic.

What management behaviours are most important?

An often cited South African study looked at how leaders affected worker engagement and retention through established theories, leader empowering behaviour, role clarity, and psychological empowerment. These three concepts can be broken down again into subsidiary concepts.

1. Leader empowering behaviour has some crossover with the third concept, but for this study, the key factors are:

a) Development – the approach a manager takes to building direct reports’ skills.

b) Accountability – this is holding their team members to account but also themselves.

c) Authority – contrary to how it might sound, it has mostly to do with appropriate delegation.

2. Role clarity. Defined by levels of role ambiguity and role conflict. A manager who reduces both would be someone who offers more role clarity.

a) A role is less ambiguous when it’s clear and predictable what will happen if you behave in a certain way. For example, if you try to change a work process to make it more efficient, do you know if you will be rewarded for innovation or reprimanded for not following procedure? If you don’t know, then your role has greater ambiguity.

b) Role conflict is when a job has demands that work in opposition to each other. A classic example would be a customer service role that insists you make every customer feel special and that you help as many customers as possible. If quality or quantity are both important, but you don’t know which takes precedence, you have a high level of role conflict.

3. Psychological empowerment. Further broken down into four factors.

a) Meaning – giving the job a sense of purpose that appeals to the employee’s values.

b) Competence – giving the employee confidence that they’re able to do the job.  

c) Self-determination – giving the employee a say in how tasks are approached.

d) Impact – giving the employee the feeling that the things they do have larger, organisational outcomes.

All this might seem overly complicated, but it becomes a useful way to think about how managers relate to their team members once you start using it. Take that leadership style widely considered problematic – micromanagement.  

If you’re micromanaged, you’re psychologically disempowered along all four factors. Your job will have less meaning because it will feel like nothing you do is quite right. Similarly, you’ll feel less competent because tasks are so often ‘corrected’. By definition you will not have self-determination – everything you do attracts amendments or comments. Finally, any impact you might have had is eliminated because your manager took so much of the responsibility.

We know micromanagement is bad, but this paradigm gives you a way to talk about why.

It’s worth saying that while not all of the above interact with wellbeing – developing skills being the most notable – most of them do. Our wellbeing is in a large part a reflection of what we do. Top organisations know this and plan appropriately.

How do these behaviours affect outcomes?

According to the researchers, the three factors outlined above explain “43% of the variance in Vigour, 61% of the variance in Dedication and 38% of the variance in Absorption.”

In other words, workers with good managers were more engaged – they had more energy for their work (vigour), and more satisfaction in their jobs (dedication), all while feeling happier while working harder (absorption). The researchers then found that this engagement reduced intention to leave the company.

The researchers were explicit that they viewed the findings as related to wellbeing. Saying, “Organisations that want to be market leaders need to recognise the importance of focusing on overall wellness for both the organisation and its employees.”

And later recommending that “interventions focusing on the aspects promoting overall wellness be implemented in the business unit.”

Smaller interventions  

A 2018 meta-analysis of 10 studies that examined global short-term programs focused on mental health revealed promising results.  

Conducted by professionals from research organisations across the world including UNSW and Deakin University, it found that they had positive effects on managers’ mental health knowledge, their attitude toward mental health, and how they approached supporting team members with mental health issues.

One of the fears of short-term training is that it has no stickiness – that at best it’s a box-ticking exercise to meet some compliance requirement. The above research offers evidence that this doesn’t have to be the case.  

The longest training program in any of the 10 studies was 14 hours and the shortest was 2 hours and 15 minutes long. Also, most of the follow-up check-ins by researchers were conducted three or more months after the training, proving that there was a longer term benefit to the training.

Looking more granularly, that shortest program also had the largest cohort of managers at 286. It followed up with both of them and 578 of their subordinates and found a “significant” improvement in knowledge in departments where a third or more managers attended training. It also found self-reported stress levels decreased in those same departments.

While the researchers say that there’s not enough research to reach definitive conclusions, and longer term studies that focus more on employee outcomes would be welcome, they did find that overall training was worthwhile.

That might be underselling it considering they wrote, “The range of beneficial effects of manager-specific mental health training on managers’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviour found in this review is very encouraging and supports such interventions as a potentially important public health initiative.”

What should be done about this?

It’s always nice when research backs up a common intuition. It turns out our managers can impact our happiness, productivity, engagement, and intention to stay. What organisations do with this knowledge is going to be dependent on what stage they’re at in their wellbeing journey. Healthy Business can help your organisation understand its psychosocial safety progress through a review, from getting started to reducing harms and fostering wellbeing.

If there’s an immediate need, or just a desire to see what wellbeing training can look like, Healthy Business offers services through Adaptive Psychology including coaching and training for managers, leadership development workshops, and induction and training for new managers.  

If you want a more holistic solution, Healthy Business can help you reinvent your wellbeing approach in a way that protects your people and your bottom line. To find out more get in touch.

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