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Are managers equipped to have wellbeing conversations?

By Nicola Macdonald-Dodin, Alight Research and Advisory Centre
Employee wellbeing UK

Employee wellbeing is increasingly moving up the agenda of many businesses. The rise in awareness of employee wellbeing has shown that many line managers feel they lack the necessary skills to engage in conversations about employee wellbeing. This is magnified when remote and or hybrid working is also thrown into the mix.

This problem stems from multiple factors, including limited access to resources, inadequate training and the overall workplace culture.

The consequences of this can significantly impact both individuals and businesses. Research has shown there is correlation between employee wellbeing and business performance. When the wellbeing of employees is poor, it can lead to increased sickness absence as well as affect retention rates.

Why don't managers feel they’re equipped to have wellbeing conversations?

The lack of accessible tools that can aid managers in addressing mental health and wellbeing issues is a significant reason for this.

Alight's 2023 International Mindset Study, due to be published later this year, reveals that only 30% of companies in the UK and 24% in the US offer access to mental and emotional health apps.

In Europe, even fewer companies offer these facilities, with only 14% of companies providing such facilities and a mere 5% in France.

However, just offering an app or resources is not the ultimate solution. Even among companies that offer these resources, their utilisation is still low, with only 36% of people in the US and 20% in Europe leveraging them.

This highlights the need for people to be aware of the resources and how to use them, but also line managers need to be able to help support their employees when they need it. They should also proactively broach wellbeing conversations with their employees.

Do line managers have the training or experience to have conversations around mental health and wellbeing? 

Lack of training certainly plays a role. An Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) survey reveals that 51% of employees feel their employers are not adequately addressing their wellbeing, often highlighting a lack of effective communication and inadequate support mechanisms.

It appears that it is not only a lack of training for line managers, but it also seems that the workplace culture needs attention so that employees can feel comfortable to talk openly about their mental health.

of employees feel their employers are not adequately addressing their wellbeing

Understanding the influence of managers' lived experiences and the importance of authentic connection

Managers underestimate their influence on team wellbeing.

The best leaders support the mental health and wellbeing of their teams. Empathy and compassion can positively impact teams.

Leaders and managers who have experienced mental health and wellbeing issues themselves are sometimes better placed to connect authentically and support employees who may also be experiencing similar issues.

Creating an authentic wellbeing culture

Changing people’s perceptions may require a broader culture change. Many companies emphasise their wellbeing credentials, investing in initiatives like employee assistance programs and mental health days off.

However, not all employees are experiencing the benefits. This disparity has led to the emergence of a new term, ‘wellbeing washing’. Like 'greenwashing', it refers to enterprises that publicly claim to offer employee support but do not provide it effectively.

Open conversations about mental health at work

The ability to openly discuss mental health varies by geographic location. In our annual Mindset study, we have found employees in the US are far more comfortable speaking about it at work compared to employees in Europe.

This disparity highlights the importance of normalising these conversations and creating an environment where employees feel safe to share their concerns.

These figures also show the importance of being aware of cultural differences. If you work in a multinational company and manage people across borders it is vital that you understand and make allowances for people in different geographies.

Adaption of wellbeing approach to accommodate cultural differences

It is important for line managers especially those who manage teams in different countries to be aware of and accommodate differing cultural attitudes to wellbeing.

A one-size-fits all approach to managing wellbeing across countries simply doesn't work. In some countries employees may say everything is fine, but in fact their wellbeing may not be. This could be because they aren't comfortable in speaking up and/or talking openly about wellbeing issues.

Line managers need to be culturally aware when speaking about wellbeing to ensure that they support their team member’s wellbeing in the most appropriate manner.

Working in a virtual environment and not seeing colleagues face to face for months or even years on end can make this even more challenging. Subtle cues and nuances in a person’s body language and demeaner which can help to highlight wellbeing needs can be missed in a virtual meeting.

What can leaders and managers do to support employee wellbeing?

  • Provide a clear vision for wellbeing
    Inspire purpose and clarity in employees’ work can contribute to improved wellbeing, which can also help improve employee retention and ultimately business performance.

  • Create safe spaces for open discussions 
    Organisations should foster an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing mental health without fear of stigma or judgement.

  • Provide training for managers 
    Invest in programs that equip managers with the necessary tools and skills to effectively engage in wellbeing conversations.

  • Invest in meaningful resources
    Go beyond superficial wellness offerings and invest in resources that can truly help employees' mental health, as well as communicating their availability to employees.

However, it is important to remember that this should not be a ‘once and done’ approach. These tools should evolve and grow with the changing needs of your workforce. Ongoing innovation and development can help to ensure your leaders and managers are equipped to support employee wellbeing.

So, are managers well-equipped to have wellbeing conversations?

Ultimately, there seems to be room for improvement in many organisations. Managers play a pivotal role in supporting mental health and wellbeing, but to do this they need the right tools, training, company support and a conducive workplace culture.

With these elements in place, significant improvements can be seen in employee retention, performance and productivity.


Nicola Macdonald-Dodin
Nicola Macdonald-Dodin
By Nicola Macdonald-Dodin

With over 25 years’ experience in Human Resources and payroll technologies Nicola leads growth and strategy for Alight internationally. Championing the importance of employee engagement, she has pioneered the development of Alight’s portfolio of market leading solutions.

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