Squeezed in the middle: the importance of line managers' wellbeing

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As the bridge between individuals and their organisation, line managers can protect their team from stressors. They are expected to be endlessly resilient, but to what extent do they absorb the pressure themselves?

Companies are increasingly recognising that investing in employees’ health and wellbeing has great potential to make a significant contribution to the economy, public finances and to reduce levels of disease and illness in the working population.

Line managers are often seen as the gatekeepers to this by helping to protect health and prevent future ill health of their employees. While responding to senior managers and organisational objectives, line managers are responsible for the everyday operation of their teams; they need to get individuals to work in a way that meets organisational objectives and team demands while being responsive to their individual needs as employees.

In other words, people management is increasingly seen as essential part of the line manager’s role; the goal is to get the best out of the employees, while supporting their wellbeing.

Research has shown a clear positive relationship between line management support, leadership style and employee wellbeing, but also a line manager’s behaviour might influence an employees’ wellbeing in the way they manage their own wellbeing at work.

If the line manager, for example, works late every night, never takes sick leave, never has a lunch, this may become something that is considered normal and desirable behaviour within the team. Management style has been identified as a core of influencing employees’ health and wellbeing. Managers’ lack of support, inconsiderate or hostile behaviour and unfair treatment contribute directly to employee depression and other mental health problems.

As the bridge between individuals and their organisation, line managers may protect their team from stressors and work pressure and they are expected to be endlessly resilient, but to what extent they are absorbing pressure themselves?

According to CIPD research carried out in 2013 on ‘squeezed’ line managers, 50% of middle managers and line managers said they feel under excessive pressure several times a week. Worryingly, a third of the managers undergoing organisational changes in the UK reported mental health levels which were comparable to psychiatric outpatients.

The perks of being a manager
If line managers are under pressure in large companies, then managers in small to medium size businesses might be even more so. An Australian study published in 2013 found that nearly 40% of SME managers/owners experienced high or very high psychological distress. Of this group, 82% reported presenteeism in the previous month, and those reporting presenteeism were 50% less productive than usual. In light of this evidence it is likely that a large number of line managers experience stress at a level that directly affects their behaviour towards employees.

A large CIPD survey in 2011 revealed that 36% of new line managers promoted internally and 52% of the externally-recruited line managers had not received any training for their role. The main reason for this is likely to be competing priorities. Consequently, 29% of the new line managers felt that time for effective line management is often squeezed or lost in favour of the more immediate tasks and priorities that seem to stand up in the way of ensuring the interests of the team are supported.

Many guidelines and toolkits have been developed for line managers to support their employees’ health and wellbeing, but there is very much less support available to address the issues of line managers themselves. Senior managers don’t necessarily recognise why leadership and management training is key to employees’ wellbeing and, in return, to a company’s success.

In many companies there is also a lack of commitment to improve leadership development and lack of systems and structures that address these issues.

Equipping line managers to support their staff in dealing with stress, and also helping them to be mindful of their own mental wellbeing, is the most positive step an organisation can take. Line managers will often be the first port of call if an employee does feel overwhelmed or needs time off. They play a pivotal role in helping employees to cope with pressure, thus line managers need support in dealing with this sensitively and employers should support them and offer them training. 

It is important that employers don’t ignore the health and wellbeing of their middle managers. Middle managers saying they are under excessive pressure every day are particularly at risk of suffering from work-related stress and burnout.

The most important thing is to prevent line managers from reaching the point where burnout becomes inevitable. Employers need to incorporate mental health into their risk assessments and find ways of recognising middle managers’ support needs.

Dealt with early with the right type of support, line managers can carry on working with enthusiasm, engaging employees and supporting them in reaching their career goals.



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