Managing mental health at work: the role of leaders and line managers

Feeling valued and supported by a manager can help individuals manage mental health problems.

Leadership and management are key to promoting good mental health at work. Emma Donaldson-Feilder and Rachel Lewis are psychologists who are developing an evidence-based approach to support line managers in protecting mental health. This article is published in support of the “Free your mind” sponsored cycle ride, which takes place this week in aid of the Black Dog campaign to remove the stigma of mental health problems. 

More than half of employees say that they have suffered from mental health problems, according to research in March 2016 by Canada Life Insurance, and, in Britain, someone is made ill by stress at work every two minutes, according to the TUC. Finding ways to prevent these problems and improve mental health is a matter of enlightened self-interest for employers.

Not only does protecting and enhancing mental health fulfill an employer’s legal duty of care and show the organisation to be ethical and responsible, it also reduces the potential costs of mental-health-related sickness absence and presenteeism.

This is no small issue with working days lost to stress, depression and anxiety amounting to nearly 10 million, according to the EU Labour Force Survey 2014/15. This costs an estimated £13 billion per year in sickness pay and lost productivity.

Leadership and management

Strong leadership and management is a key factor in ensuring good mental health and wellbeing for employees. For many people, the way they are treated by their line manager and the behaviour of all the leaders in the organisation makes an enormous difference to how they feel about themselves and their work.

Free your mind

This feature is part of a short series focusing on positive mental health and wellbeing at work.

It is in conjunction with the Free your mind initiative, a sponsored 500 mile solo ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles between 15 and 21 June by Stephen Haynes.

The initiative is in support of the Black Dog Campaign to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness, to help future research into treatment and to provide care and support for people suffering with mental ill-health.

If you would like to make a donation to mental health charity SANE and the Black Dog Campaign, you can do this here.

Free Your Mind was made possible with the kind support of the Wellbeing People, StepJockey and Cranleigh Freight Services, alongside media partner Occupational Health & Wellbeing.

At one extreme, an abusive, negative, inconsistent or even just disorganised manager can cause those who work for them to suffer from stress-related health problems (in fact research shows that lack of managerial support is one of the most commonly cited factors in stress, anxiety and depression). At the other end of the scale, feeling valued and supported by a manager can help individuals manage all kinds of difficulties, including mental health problems that would otherwise dent their performance.

As well as their behaviour having a direct impact on employee mental health, managers and leaders can act as the “gatekeepers” to the presence (or absence) of working conditions that present risks to employee mental wellbeing. This could be by preventing an unfair workload being placed on one individual, for instance, or ensuring that organisational change is well communicated.

Line managers can also help ensure that mental health problems are identified early if they arise in their team; and, if an individual suffers from a mental health problem, that problem is more likely to be tackled – and resolved – if the manager is involved in the solution.

Research evidence linking management and leadership to employee mental health and wellbeing has grown dramatically over the last decade, to the point where it is so well supported it almost seems self-evident. However, it can be less obvious how to achieve good people-focused leadership and management on the ground.

What do leaders and managers need to do?

On the basis that leaders and managers are vital to protecting mental health in the workplace, it is important that we understand exactly what they should (and should not) do. Affinity Health at Work’s research Consortium has spent over a decade exploring the role of people management behaviour in this area, with support from the CIPD, the Health and Safety Executive, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and Acas.

Affinity Health’s research on management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work set out to generate the evidence base on which to raise managers’ awareness and skills.

Between 2005 and 2011, we conducted a four-phase research programme looking at the specific behaviours that managers need to adopt in order to prevent and reduce stress in those they manage. Phases 1 and 2 of this programme used both qualitative and quantitative methodologies to develop a framework of management behaviours, entitled “management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work” (MCPARS) (Yarker, Donaldson-Feilder, Lewis & Flaxman, 2007, Yarker Donaldson-Feilder & Lewis, 2008).

Phase 3 of the programme designed and evaluated a learning and development intervention to support managers to include the MCPARS behaviours in their management repertoire (Donaldson-Feilder, Lewis & Yarker, 2009); and phase 4 developed a series of case studies showing how different organisations integrated the MCPARS findings into their organisational practices (Donaldson-Feilder & Lewis, 2011).

A summary of the MCPARS framework is provided in the table below.

Comparator analysis with widely used people management and leadership frameworks, and a number of organisation-specific frameworks, demonstrated that the MCPARS framework was distinct in that each of the competencies appeared in at least one of the comparison frameworks, but no other framework included all the competencies.

This meant not only that the framework could be integrated with existing management responsibilities, but also that some behaviours relevant to managing the stress of others may not be being assessed, trained or developed at line manager level.

Developing managers and leaders to support employee mental health

From our exploration of how to develop the relevant management behaviour, we know that managers can be supported to develop the behaviours relevant to protecting mental health, through upward feedback and workshop input, and that this will link to positive outcomes in employees.

However, we also know that management development is not just about choosing the right model and running a “training” event. Developing manager skills is a process that evolves over time and requires a range of elements. Applying and sustaining newly learned behaviour in the workplace is difficult and needs support. And the context in which managers work will have a major impact on how they actually behave.

Through reviewing the literature, we found that, although there is some research evidence about how to achieve successful management development, there was no unifying model to help practitioners and organisations understand what they need to do to design effective management development, support the application of management skills in the workplace and to set the context for sustainable behaviour change.

To fill this gap, our research conducted between 2013 and 2015 has reviewed a wide range of evidence, from academic and practitioner research, to practitioner expertise, to actual practice in employer organisations. The aim was to look at how to develop and sustain the development of managers in order to protect and enable the health and wellbeing of employees.

Examples of the factors that emerged from this work include: having a supportive organisational culture where there is open dialogue, respect and recognition for all; senior managers who are role models and lead by example; and providing a long-term development programme that uses a range of different methodologies.

Based on this research, we have developed a set of checklists that can help employers identify which elements they do and do not have in place.

Later this year we will also publish a maturity model in order to help those embarking on the design and implementation of management development to identify priorities for putting in place the relevant success factors.

We hope that our work will support employers and practitioners to take practical steps, based on rigorous evidence, to address the question of employee mental health by improving the quality of people management and leadership.

More broadly, there is much to be done to improve the extent to which evidence generated by academic research in this field is translated into practical tools. There is also much to be done in bringing practitioner expertise, needs and evidence to the attention of academics.

Supported by the Affinity Health at Work Research Consortium, a new resource is under development to help practitioners access a sound evidence base for their work around employee health and wellbeing. Building on our research, the intention is to provide freely accessible practical tools, guidance and materials that give evidence-based support to address employee health, wellbeing and engagement, and achieve people-focused leadership and management.

Management competencies for preventing and reducing stress at work





Respectful and responsible: managing emotions and having integrity


Being respectful and honest to employees

Managing emotions

Behaving consistently and calmly around the team

Considerate approach

Being thoughtful in managing others and delegating

Managing and communicating existing and future work

Proactive work management

Monitoring and reviewing existing work, allowing future prioritisation and planning

Problem solving

Dealing with problems promptly, rationally and responsibly


Listening to, meeting and consulting with the team, providing direction, autonomy and development opportunities to individuals

Managing the individual within the team

Personally accessible

Available to talk to personally


Relaxed approach, such as socialising and using humour

Empathetic engagement

Seeking to understand each individual in the team in terms of their health and satisfaction, motivation, point of view and life outside work

Reasoning/managing difficult situations

© Crown Copyright 2008

Managing conflict

Dealing with conflicts decisively, promptly and objectively

Use of organisational resources

Seeking advice when necessary from managers, HR and occupational health

Taking responsibility for resolving issues

Having a supportive and responsible approach to issues and incidents in the team

2 Responses to Managing mental health at work: the role of leaders and line managers

  1. Avatar
    A. Nonymous 28 Oct 2018 at 11:24 pm #

    A manager who rarely, if ever communicates with the team, actively mocks staff with MH issues, and claims he can’t talk to three quarters of the team because he’s scared to upset them is no manager at all?
    Welcome back to the dark ages. This is the kind of backwardness that still goes on. Our days are now a dread rather than a pleasure.

  2. Avatar
    Rishika Ahluwalia 31 Jan 2019 at 9:28 am #

    Most workplaces are not entirely equipped to deal with mental health issues. Many professionals in the nonprofit world work directly with trauma, violence, abuse, and injustice. This, in addition to what they might already be dealing with in their personal lives, can critically affect their mental health.

Leave a Reply