CEO & Co-Founder, Unmind
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How to support line managers during the transition back to work

As the primary point of contact for employees, line managers are crucial to the success of your organisation’s wellbeing strategy. To ensure a successful return to work, it’s essential to offer them the right support.

5th Aug 2020
CEO & Co-Founder, Unmind
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Portrait of businesswoman with protective gloves and face mask after returning back to work at office
iStock/mixetto

The line manager’s duty of care over employee wellbeing can sometimes be overlooked, but now more than ever they’re essential to ensuring our workplaces are healthy and happy.  

As the first port of call for employees during the pandemic, line managers have been put under new levels of pressure. In addition to getting projects over the line and supervising their teams in a remote working world, they must now navigate the short to long-term mental health implications of a global health crisis within their teams. Many managers will be contending with their own challenges too.

In order for line managers to be reassuring figures who can provide tangible answers and support for employees, businesses need to ensure they’re brought into these strategic decisions.

A recent report from Unmind and the Reward and Benefits Association (REBA) found that conversations around mental health had risen among 88% of managers during the lockdown. The same study found that 17% of organisations have already increased investment in line manager training to support employee mental health, and a further 63% plan to do so.

So, as we take our first tentative steps back to work, it’s crucial that HR is able to equip managers with the skills and knowledge to support their employees' mental health through another period of change. Here are four steps to empowering line managers to lead a mentally healthy transition.

Enable clear communication

While there are still many unknowns about the virus and our recovery from it, clear, concise and consistent communication is crucial for keeping our workplaces cohesive. Humans are hard-wired to respond negatively to uncertainty. In the absence of certainty, we fill in the blanks with our own narratives. Rather than constructively solving the issue, this only perpetuates our worry and stress. It’s a phenomenon known as anticipatory anxiety.

Managers are uniquely positioned to provide some level of certainty. Even without concrete plans, employers can offer clear answers to their people – such as a commitment to give two weeks’ notice before returning to the office, or providing a date on which more details will be shared. This information will enable people to make plans in other areas of their life, and that will help to reduce anticipatory anxiety.

In order for line managers to be reassuring figures who can provide tangible answers and support for employees, businesses need to ensure they’re brought into these strategic decisions and are fully prepared to answer questions about the return to work plan.

Provide education around mental health

Our mental health is determined not only by psychological factors, but also by our physical and social health, and lockdown has compromised all three. To aid our wellbeing through the next transition and beyond, we should aim to nurture all of these areas. This is known as a ‘whole-person approach’.

 It’s up to HR to educate line managers more thoroughly on how to support mental health.

Our social connections have shifted – we’ve had to review our reliance on friendship networks, withstand loneliness, and navigate changing family dynamics. This situation may also have had an impact on our physical health, as we perhaps led more sedentary lifestyles and took up new eating, drinking, and sleeping habits – not to mention the underlying health risks of infection. On an emotional level, the lens through which we see the world might have been altered over the last few weeks, with the fragility of society becoming starkly apparent.

Returning to work can offer benefits to our mental health as it reintroduces structure and purpose to our daily lives, though the transition will pose a new set of challenges too. For example, many will have experienced gains from lockdown. Little things like sleeping in longer, living in loungewear, and being able to put on a midday wash may be hard to let go of. As such, some employees will experience losses on returning to work. Meanwhile, after months of strong ‘stay home’ messaging, others will inevitably feel anxious about reengaging with public transport. Remote working might also have led to changes in the dynamics of working relationships – some may have strengthened while others will have lost cohesion.

Those with pre-existing mental health conditions may find the transition even more challenging. For many people, lockdown – with the absence of certain triggers – will have given people a reprieve, which returning to work might bring back to the fore.

Understanding these challenges, and what to do if faced with them, is key to supporting the mental health of our employees in the weeks and months to come. It’s up to HR to educate line managers more thoroughly on how to support mental health, and equip them with the knowledge around how returning to work may impact their teams’ mental health.

Signpost further support

In addition to clear communication and regular check-ins during the return to work, line managers play an important role in signposting employees to existing wellbeing resources.

To enable this to happen, HR must clearly communicate the wellbeing support available and ensure managers are well versed in how they can help to tackle the specific problems caused by returning to work. This helps to relieve some of the pressure from line managers, who can direct employees to the right support at the right time. Indeed, our managers shouldn’t be expected to play the role of a counsellor or therapist. In fact, with the responsibility of supporting their teams, it’s crucial they’re supported themselves.

So as well as equipping managers with the knowledge to notice signs and take appropriate action with employees, HR must ensure that support is available at all levels of the organisation.

Culture Pioneers link

Using technology

Throughout the pandemic, technology has supported and enhanced our lives in so many ways. Never before has its potential been so readily embraced, not least for the purpose of health and wellbeing.  

As we approach another period of change, the ability to monitor and track the mental wellbeing of our entire workforces is hugely advantageous. With digital tools, leaders are able to collect aggregated and anonymised data about the mental health of their teams. With this information, we can glean invaluable insights into the factors that are impacting performance, empowering managers to make more informed strategic decisions.

Not only can we use technology to take a pulse check of our organisation’s mental health, but also to signpost support, and share training resources to line managers at scale. In this current climate – where remote and office-based working have become two sides of the same coin – technology’s ability to reach any employee, wherever they are and at any time, has become critical for connecting with teams.

As the disruption of the working world continues, our mental health support mechanisms must change with the times. As the primary point of contact for employees and the wider organisation, line managers will need to be central to the workplace mental health strategies of the future.  

Interested in this topic? Read Employee wellbeing: the great reopening and how to get ready.

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