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Mental health and management style

In her second article on mental health at work, Yvonne Hardiman looks at the importance of good management to mental health.

Many employers are working hard to protect the health and safety of their workforce, and yet the numbers of people suffering from work-related mental health conditions continues to rise.

There is a strong link between appropriate management style and good mental health. Managers are in a unique position to encourage positive mental wellbeing in the workplace. Consequently, it is vital that they know how to develop an appropriate management style to help employers fulfil duty of care obligations.

Humans have successfully relied on two basic survival strategies for thousands of years: being part of a group and having a strong leader.

Feeling part of a group increases feelings of belonging and security. Thousands of years ago, being excluded would almost definitely have had fatal consequences. Today isolation, loneliness and exclusion continue to affect our mental health.

“ Managers are in a unique position to encourage positive mental wellbeing in the workplace.”

Strong leadership protects the group in times of perceived danger. Thousands of years ago the group would ensure that the leader had the best food and drink and was kept safe and strong so that, when danger threatened, they could be there to provide direction to protect all of them. This was the basis of the psychological contract. Group members looked after the leader and the leader looked after them (Simon Sinek, 2017).

These two basic survival techniques – being in a group and having a strong leader – are embedded in our DNA and are echoed both at work and socially today. The unwritten psychological contract still exists between team members and their managers. Most of us have witnessed what happens when the psychological contract breaks down. Much the same as in the past: we feel insecure and anxious. We may not be threatened by a dangerous wild animal, but our mental health and consequently our physical health is likely to suffer.

Two management styles in practice

For the purpose of looking at the impact on mental health I want to focus on two particular management styles:

the leader-follower model and the leader-leader model (L. David Marquet, 2013).

The leader-leader model is collaborative and gives much more control to the team member to decide how to organise their working day. The leader-follower style is more directional and veers towards blind obedience. Different circumstances and different people require different leadership styles.

The move from leader-leader to leader-follower management style can be seen in the fight against the coronavirus Covid-19. In the UK the prime minister (the leader) formed a strategy aimed to protect UK citizens (the group). At the start of the crisis he asked people to follow certain rules, but gave them control to decide for themselves what to do (leader-leader).

This approach was acceptable to some people but not others who asked, ‘Why isn’t he telling us what to do?’ They instinctively knew that, as the threat increased, they needed more direction. Undoubtedly, their anxiety increased.

As the situation worsened the prime minister transitioned from the leader-leader approach to leader-follower. He was no longer asking people to follow the rules, he was telling them that they had to follow. Undoubtedly for some people having control over their daily lives will have an impact on their mental wellbeing. The leader’s job is to weigh up the various risks and make a decision on which style to use.

One of the key skills a manager needs is to know is when to flex between the two styles, taking into consideration the situation and the likely reaction of the team members.

Six pressure points

During business as usual, the leader-leader management model is most likely to encourage positive mental wellbeing in the workplace. Referring to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) six pressure points impacting on mental health, we can see why.

The demands of the role, for example how much work there is, deadlines for completing the work and conflicting demands

Having unrealistic and unreasonable demands placed upon us increases anxiety and stress levels. It leads to feelings of hopelessness and affects our self-worth. Naturally, this impacts our mental wellbeing and can lead to mental health issues. Adopting a leader-leader approach depends on the manager coming to a shared agreement about what the end goal is and then giving the employee the freedom to achieve the goals in their own way. It’s about encouraging supportive team working and team goals so that workload can be shared, where possible.

How much control we have over the way we carry out our job, when we take our breaks and how involved we are in decision-making that directly affects our job

During business as usual, the feeling of not having control over our day-to-day work can have a huge negative impact on our stress levels. When adopting a leader-leader approach the intention is to move as much control as possible to the employee.

Managers may feel anxious about relinquishing control because they fear that the employee doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to make the right decisions. For the leader-leader approach to be successful, all employees must have the necessary knowledge and skills to enable them to make the decisions appropriate for their role level. The manager’s job here is to identify gaps in knowledge and skills and provide the training required to resolve them.

“To enable all employees to feel that they fit into the big picture, the purpose must be communicated well by the leadership.”

How much support we have, for example from our managers or team leaders, and whether we have the knowledge, skills and tools to carry out our roles efficiently

Employees feel supported when they feel they have the knowledge and skills to do what is being asked of them, when they feel they are trusted to make decisions over their daily working lives and when they know that they can go to their manager and other team members for help when needed. Required outcomes rather than how the outcomes will be achieved need to be communicated clearly. Employees need technical know-how, tools such as IT equipment and software, access to required information and an understanding of risk management.

           Whether we have positive working relationships

Working relationships are strengthened in a high-trust environment. Excellent managers will have a sense of purpose that mirrors that of the wider organisation. Communicating this to the team will engender a feeling of belonging, shared purpose and trust. Ensuring shared purpose and values begins with hiring the right people.

Trust will also come from believing that our manager has our interests at heart, that they care about us as individuals, that they trust us and give us the space to carry out our tasks, and that they encourage a feeling of team spirit where team members don’t compete against each other.

       Whether we know our work contributes to the employer’s strategic objectives and we can see how we fit into the big picture

The big picture is about why the workplace exists. Each employer will decide on its own particular purpose.

To enable all employees to feel that they fit into the big picture, the purpose must be communicated well by the leadership. The strategic goals that link to the purpose must be communicated, and the tasks that need to be carried out must link to the strategic goals.

Managers need to understand how the tasks enable the workforce to contribute to achieving the strategic goal and the purpose so that they can communicate this to their team members.

       Whether we feel informed about what is going on in the workplace, especially during times of change

For the leader-leader model to be successful, crystal clear communication is essential. We’ve already looked at how critical this is in communicating the organisation and personal purpose. It’s also vital in communicating what goals need to be achieved, why, and how achieving those goals relates to fulfilling purpose. Where there is ambiguity, especially in times of change, this is vital.

“    Having unrealistic and unreasonable demands placed upon us increases anxiety and stress levels.”

In summary

Employers have a duty of care to protect against work-related mental health conditions, and people managers are in a unique position to fulfil that duty of care obligation.

In today’s workplace, the skills and knowledge managers require include:

  • being aware of the different management styles and when they are appropriate
  • understanding risk management
  • being able to communicate purpose to their team members
  • being able to identify gaps in knowledge and skills in the team members and to put learning interventions in place to bridge the gaps
  • ensuring that team members have the tools and materials they need to carry out their role
  • having confidence in their team members so they can give them as much control as possible over their working day
  • providing crystal clear communication, especially in times of change.

Employers can contribute to positive mental wellbeing in the workplace by ensuring that managers have the knowledge and skills needed to carry out their role.

Further information

Simon Sinek (2017), Leaders Eat Last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t, Penguin: London.

L. David Marquet (2013), Turn the Ship Around!: A true story of turning followers into leaders, Penguin: London

About the author

Yvonne Hardiman, Chartered MCPID, MA (Management) began her management career at BSI, heading up a publishing, printing and warehousing division. In 2005 she joined a law firm as HR Director and Partner. Today Yvonne enjoys running her own HR consultancy assisting organisations with all aspects of people management. https://yvonnehardiman.com/