Over the last few years Australia’s legal framework has faced significant changes – a likely overlooked one has been the focus on psychosocial hazards under workplace health and safety (WHS) legislation across the country. While legislative change (or clarification) is important to implement action in business, it shouldn’t be and isn’t the only reason for taking a look at our people practices.

According to the Australian Human Research Institute (AHRI), new research reveals that direct managers have a bigger influence on our mental health than doctors or therapists. In fact, the impact is somewhat equal to the impact as our partners! I guess it’s not really surprising – we all spend a large proportion of our time at work and our manager is in a unique position to shape our experience, for good or for bad. As the USA moves into Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought it would be timely to examine the role of a manager in the modern era.

How can a manager impact mental health?

In this instance, WHS legislation offers a helpful glimpse at hazards that, let’s be honest, are quite easy to overlook. In most instances it touches on all aspects of our work lives such as:

  • Job demands (being too high or too low).
  • Low job control.
  • Poor support / poor change management.
  • Low role clarity.
  • Low reward and recognition.
  • Interpersonal conflicts.
  • Remote and isolated work.

The list goes on, however in my view a common trait amongst these is the enormous pressure businesses place on leaders to carefully manage these hazards. Managers have a lot on their plates – often they are trying to push key business outcomes while carefully protecting their team from the above hazards. It’s no surprise then that managers let things slip, and when they do, the impacts are felt by their team and can extend into their personal lives.

More and more employees expect to work at places that equips leaders to support employees through both work and personal related hardships, however often managers aren’t provided with the training needed to do this effectively (more on this further below)

Overall, I see three key areas managers can make a big difference on their teams’ mental health:

  1. Building relationships with your team based on trust:

    • This can be built by adopting a transparent, open, and honest leadership style that creates a safe space for your team to raise their concerns – whether work related or personal.

  2. Familiarising yourself with psychosocial hazards in the workplace and the signs someone may be struggling:

    • Regularly touching base with your team via 1:1’s and ensuring your communicating effectively will go a long way in helping you be aware of when further support may be needed, either at a team or individual level.

  3. Consistently recognising and rewarding your team:

    • While it may not seem like much, recognising and rewarding your team helps them to feel valued, included, and respected.
    • It doesn’t have to be anything major or formal – private feedback or sharing great feedback in a public setting are easy wins for managers.
    • Where possible, consider small rewards that have a minimal financial impact (e.g., a late start or an early finish here and there).

Finally, and most importantly (there may be some bias here as a HR Professional myself), partner with the HR Consultant in your business. HR Consultants come with a wealth of experience and knowledge, and it is their role to support managers in leading their teams effectively – they’re not only there for the “hiring and firing.” 

How can your business support Managers?

While I wanted to focus on the role of a manager with this blog, it’s important to briefly touch on the roles businesses have in all of this. As I outlined earlier, often people within our businesses get promoted into leadership without any actual training. Businesses need to take a step back and consider:

  • What are we asking of our managers?
  • How are we supporting them to achieve this?
  • How do these expectations impact our managers?

A crucial point in all of this is that managers in the modern world may be struggling too. Not only do they need to manage these hazards for their team, but they also face these hazards as employees in the business. In fact, these hazards can be somewhat heightened due to the nature of their role and needing to “take the load” off their team.

More than ever businesses need to equip their leaders with the right skills and support to navigate modern leadership expectations. Business should consider:

  • Providing training on psychosocial hazards (how to identify and manage these as a leader).
  • Ensuring leaders have the resources and support needed to discuss mental health with their team – we can’t expect leaders to just know how to talk about this stuff with no prior experience or resources!
  • Develop an approachable and professional HR Consultant – whether you rely on consultants or build this in house. Your HR Consultant needs to empower managers and provide a safe space for managers to discuss the challenges of their roles.
  • Conduct anonymous annual engagement and feedback surveys to ensure employees are being given the opportunity to provide constructive and regular feedback.

While taking such action will help a business meet WHS obligations, it also makes business sense. Having a mentally safe workplace with leaders equipped to support employees through mental health challenges can benefit retention, engagement, long-term performance and even attraction of staff.  I encourage all managers and businesses to take a proactive approach to mental health – not only will this break down stigma and barriers people face in the workplace, but it will also bring about tangible benefits to your business and your teams.  

In navigating the intricate landscape of mental health in the workplace, the role of a manager has emerged as pivotal. Yet, with ever-evolving challenges and expectations, managers often find themselves at a loss for effective strategies. That’s where wattsnext steps in. With our expertise and tailored guidance, we empower managers to navigate the complexities of mental health hazards, foster trusting relationships with their teams, and cultivate environments of support and recognition. Partner with wattsnext to embark on a journey towards a mentally safe workplace, where both employees and businesses thrive.

Author: Ben Watts
Ben is a veteran in the HR space- a forward-thinking leader specialising in functional business structures and people performance techniques. With twenty years’ experience managing large ASX listed corporates across multiple industries, Ben adds depth and expertise to our clients' strategy solutions, genuinely providing a commercial result for their investment.