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Report: Managers Have Bigger Impact on Employee Mental Health than Therapists


A man and woman sitting on a couch talking to each other.


​A new report by the Workforce Institute at UKG found that managers have a greater influence on employee mental health than therapists or doctors, and an influence equal to spouses and partners. That may be surprising until you consider that 60 percent of the employees surveyed said their job was the most significant factor in their mental health. The survey included 2,200 employees and 1,200 leaders in 10 countries. 

Other striking employee responses: 

  • One in three said their manager fails to recognize the impact they have on their team's mental well-being.
  • Nearly three in four said stress from work negatively impacts their home life.
  • Two-thirds would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness.
  • A majority (70 percent) want their company to do more to support mental health. 

Leaders and workers have quite different mental health experiences: Nine in 10 human resource and C-suite leaders surveyed said that working for their company had a positive impact on employee mental health, while only half of employees agreed. 

"People power organizations, so managers need to be aware [of their employees' mental health]. This is an organizational concern," said Tracy Curry, SHRM-SCP, HR director at Fearless, a digital services company in Baltimore. She sees it as a healthy sign that employee assistance program (EAP) resources are well used by Fearless's 250 employees. 

Suffering in Silence

One in five employees responding to the survey said the impact on their mental health from their job was negative. Heavy workloads and exhaustion at the end of the day were common problems cited. Yet, more than one-third of employees rarely or never talked to their managers about it. 

Traditionally, managers were taught to avoid discussing mental health with employees in an attempt to not run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, nondiscrimination laws and confidentiality issues, said John Adamcik, SHRM-SCP, director of HR for Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina. "If someone needed help, they went to HR." 

That old script is changing, Adamcik said. Leaders should check in with employees who appear distracted, tired or stressed. Beyond the human concern, an overwhelmed employee will be less engaged, productive and innovative, and more likely to leave.

Today, managers often are encouraged to share their challenges and strategies for coping with stress to model work/life balance for their team. By being open about stress, managers send the message that employees can talk about their problems without stigma. 

"It's old-school to separate your personal and professional life," said Linda Dahlstrom, a manager for a Fortune 500 company. "The manager should see you as a whole person, recognizing that [employees] have a lot of things going on outside of work. It's respecting who people are." 

But the growth of the remote workplace has made it challenging to stay in touch, said Ellyn Pollack, supervisory program analyst at the U.S. Census Bureau who has also managed people in the private sector. "People feel more connected when they can actually see one another, so it's important to turn on the camera for meetings when on a Teams or Zoom call," she maintains. Bonus: seeing colleagues' pets, kids and home office spaces. 

Start the Conversation

Managers shouldn't force a discussion. Instead, they should try to earn employees' trust and let them know they have a safe space to share. 

While showing compassion and concern, respecting employee privacy is also important, Pollack said. She recommends that managers regularly remind staff of available employee support services. "This allows them to seek assistance and still maintain their privacy," she said. 

Adamcik suggests this gentle, caring approach for an employee whose performance has declined: "This isn't like you. I'm not trying to pry but is there anything work-related we can help with?" 

When Dahlstrom was a newspaper editor early in her career, she managed a reporter who turned in impeccable copy on deadline. When she started seeing a lot of mistakes in his work, she simply asked him how he was doing. 

The employee revealed that his wife was in the end stages of multiple sclerosis. He was getting up every two hours at night to change her position due to bedsores. 

"It changed everything," Dahlstrom said. "When you see someone acting out of character, there may be something going on that we can't even imagine." Once you know what's happening, you can offer support and modifications, she added. 

"Get proactive about asking employees how they are," Curry echoed. "Check in briefly if they're having a bad day. You can talk about 'what' without the 'why' to avoid making the person uncomfortable." 

"Don't try to play the therapist," Curry added. She stressed that managers and HR professionals should not do a deep dive but refer the employee to an EAP, where staff have clinical training for this. 

The majority of employees (81 percent) sent a strong message through The Workplace Institute at UKG survey that their mental health was a higher priority at work than their salary. 

"Employees today are looking for a caring environment. A caring culture is going to win in the arena of recruiting and retention," Adamcik said. 

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.

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