The importance of line manager training in supporting employee wellbeing

Author: Hannah Mason

Line managers play a crucial role in supporting employees with their wellbeing. However, an XpertHR global survey found that most organisations do not offer specific wellbeing training to line managers. Here we explore three key areas of training for employee wellbeing.

In late spring 2023, XpertHR conducted a global survey on employee wellbeing, covering 450 organisations operating in the UK and US. The research explored their approaches to employee wellbeing, including the prioritisation, scope, and measuring and monitoring of the effectiveness of, as well as leadership and management involvement in, wellbeing efforts.

The survey found that employee wellbeing is a key priority for most organisations, with around two-thirds (68.7%) indicating that wellbeing is either a business priority or important within their organisation, deserving of close attention. Around three-quarters (75.3%) reported that executives contribute to the design and implementation of the wellbeing approach, either playing a role in building the strategy or signing off on key decisions.

But despite these findings, our survey showed that just one-quarter (23.3%) of responding organisations offer specific training to line managers to help them support employee wellbeing. As such, the findings appear to highlight a disconnect between the high-level organisational approach to wellbeing and the processes that are actually in place to enable line managers to support their staff.

Line managers are often responsible for a range of activities that support employee wellbeing, including:

  • monitoring an employee's role and responsibilities to ensure their workload is manageable;
  • being responsible for liaising with relevant professionals to support the successful rehabilitation of an employee on sick leave;
  • ensuring employees are working suitable hours and taking their annual leave; and
  • being familiar with wellbeing policies and procedures that are likely to affect wellbeing, including those relating to stress, bullying and harassment, and access to occupational health services.

Without any training, line managers may not be equipped to support employees adequately, which in turn could lead to poor business outcomes, including increased absences and reduced job performance.

Here we set out an approach to line manager training to support different elements of wellbeing and the positive outcomes associated with effective training programmes.

1. Emotional and psychological wellbeing

Line managers play a key role in supporting employees who have a mental health condition, and employers should make sure that they provide them with comprehensive guidance and training to enable them to do this effectively and with confidence.

Our wellbeing survey found that approximately three-quarters (72.6%) of respondents reported that their organisation had made strategic decisions to improve employees' psychological and emotional health. Despite this focus, around two-thirds (63.5%) of these organisations did not have wellbeing training in place for line managers.

The training provided should help line managers to spot the common signs of mental ill health and to identify employees who are struggling in this respect. It should also cover the ways in which pressure can tip over into negative stress and other work-related problems, for example poor performance. It should guide managers on how, and at what point, to seek specialist help if they cannot deal with an individual with a mental health problem, or do not feel confident or comfortable in managing a particular issue.

The benefits of training line managers in mental health at work can include:

  • greater confidence among managers in approaching employees to offer early support at work;
  • more effective and timely referrals to occupational health or other specialist services;
  • more effective management support for individuals who are absent with a mental health problem;
  • less stigma about mental ill health at work; and
  • a reduction in absence due to an increased ability to keep employees well at work.

The XpertHR Leading practice guide on supporting employee mental health includes areas that should be covered in an employer's mental health training provision, as well as signs and symptoms of mental ill health.

2. Stress management

Training line managers is key to a successful stress-management programme in your organisation.

Stress was cited as a key issue for organisations in the UK survey on absence rates, with one employer stating: "Stress-related absences are increasing and more absences are becoming longer term. Indications are that workloads and work-life balance are impacting on employee health." Without appropriate training for line managers on issues such as how to support employees and fostering a culture that avoids unnecessary or unmanageable stress, organisations are likely to experience stress-related absences. The average cost of absence, including stress-related absence, per employee in 2022 stood at £643.60.

Training for line managers should cover how to spot and deal with signs of stress and how to manage staff effectively to prevent avoidable stress from occurring. It should also cover how to facilitate effective conversations and suggest appropriate follow-on actions to take.

Training can help line managers to:

  • influence whether or not employees work long hours;
  • appreciate the importance of giving staff recovery time after a busy period;
  • encourage employees to take regular breaks and annual leave;
  • develop a "no blame" culture; and
  • give employees regular performance feedback, both positive and negative.

XpertHR has a line manager Training resource that provides guidance on how to prevent stress and help employees cope with stress.

3. Financial wellbeing

In our 2023 survey on reward planning and priorities, it was found that helping employees through the cost-of-living crisis was the top priority for organisations' reward teams this year.

Responsibility for providing financial wellbeing support to employees does not sit solely with line managers, and likely requires a variety of different measures, including financial education. This might include guidance on managing money better, explanations about the types of products available to employees, and generic information about pensions and savings products.

But while the availability of this form of support may be welcomed, the part played by line managers should not be underestimated. Line managers often know individual team members better than anyone else, so they play a vital role in communicating what is on offer to employees, enabling them to access the right types of support, and lending a confidential, non-judgmental ear when an individual is struggling. Line managers may need appropriate training to fulfil this role effectively. Such training might include the development of soft skills, such as active listening.

Positive effects of good financial wellbeing may not be easily measured but can include improved productivity and business growth, as well as helping staff retention and absences, since poor financial wellbeing is linked with other aspects of wellbeing such as stress and mental health issues.

The XpertHR Leading practice guide on strengthening the financial wellbeing of your workforce offers a range of information and guidance on developing a financial wellbeing strategy in your organisation.

Additional resources

Championing a stress-free workplace

Developing and implementing a wellbeing programme: Why employers need to invest in employee wellbeing

Podcast: Creating a culture of mental health wellbeing at work

Webinar: Financial wellbeing in a cost-of-living crisis

The rewards for proper line manager training

Line managers have a responsibility to support employees with their wellbeing. As such, it is imperative that organisations provide them with the necessary training to do this. Our global survey highlighted that most organisations do not provide managers with training that is specific to wellbeing issues. Consequently, employees may not feel appropriately supported by their line manager and may not be receiving the appropriate accommodations and support to keep them in work. The consequences of this for employees may include increased absences, difficult relationships with their manager, and poor performance.

In addition to offering training for managers to help support employee wellbeing, organisations should also consider the most appropriate and effective way to deliver such training. Evidence shows that some factors, including face-to-face delivery, training over a longer term and interactive sessions, can make training more beneficial. Effective training can have a variety of benefits, such as creating a better work environment for employees and contributing to lower absence rates and lower staff turnover, which demonstrates the clear advantages for organisations and employees alike of introducing effective line manager wellbeing training.