How can line managers look after their wellbeing, so they can look after the wellbeing of others?

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Line managers have so much landing on their desk these days, particularly in firms where cut backs to support staff have been made. This is not just true of wellbeing, but other functions too.

Yes, the analogy about putting your safety mask on before you put on others’ is a cliche, but cliches are born from truth. 

“Wellbeing is not a fluffy extra, or a nice-to-have,” says Organisational Consultant Charlotte Wiseman. “It’s fundamental. If you don’t have your wellbeing and good mental health, you can’t use all your technical or analytic skills. It’s like having a tool kit, but not knowing how to use them!”.

She herself learnt the hard way suffering a “real crisis” after taking on a line manager role:

“I had no training, no understanding of mental health. I just thought the more hours I did, the more I’d get done and I ignored all my physical symptoms. I kept saying I was fine until I suddenly realised I wasn’t fine. The experience sparked my interest in psychology and neuroscience and is why I do what I do today.”

We talk to Wiseman and other wellbeing experts for their best advice for line managers.

Find effective ways to switch off from work 

We live in an always on 24/7 society but if you don’t switch off, you will burnout. And plenty of line managers are.

“We all know we have finite time but we often forget we have finite energy too. You must find ways to separate yourself from work and switch off,” says Wiseman. “That means an emotional switch off, as well as a functional one.”

It’s often not enough, she says, to say you won’t check your emails on your phone in your time off. Some of the senior executives she works with go to the extent of deleting the mail app every weekend and reinstalling it on Mondays.

“Other clients say they have to do something where they physically can’t check their emails, like swimming,” she says.

Ensure you have a support network

You need to have places in your life where you can be yourself, let your guard down and talk about your concerns. That may be friends and family, but there’s a huge benefit in joining work-related networks, where you share experiences with your peers.

“When we train managers, we find a lot of the benefit for them is actually just connecting with other line managers and learning from each other, as well as sharing experiences and offloading worries,” says Wiseman.

Develop your self awareness

People are notoriously poor at self-awareness, and this is especially true as employees raise the ranks, according to Harvard Business Review.

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“The more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities,” says Tasha Eurich, PhD, organisational psychologist, writing for HBR. She cites one study of leaders finding that higher levels leaders “significantly” over valued their skills compared to others’ perceptions.

Reasons for this are given as 1) senior leaders have fewer people above them to give honest feedback 2) the more senior a leader is, the less comfortable people will be giving them honest feedback.

The best people managers actively seek feedback from those they manage and listen and respond to feedback. And, fortunately, there are signs that many managers today are keen to improve their skills. 

“We’re getting more and more requests from senior leadership for tailored training to help them be more self aware. They want to understand their narratives and how their behaviours ripple and impact each other,” says Wiseman.

“We’re getting more and more requests from senior leadership for tailored training to help them be more self aware. They want to understand how they can be a positive influence, which requires they understand how their behaviours ripple to impact others and each other,” says Wiseman.  

“This work helps them understand the drivers of behaviours, the unwritten ground rules in the organisation and their narratives, so they understand how new habits and behaviours can benefit them and to promote long-term behaviour change.”

Take a pause

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

So said Viktor E. Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and wrote ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. 

Pausing before reacting is a simple (yet hard) and extremely powerful tool when navigating relationship. When at a global financial services firm and considering how to embed a positive, caring culture, Francine Watson, Wellbeing Consultant, says “we introduced this concept of ‘P.A.U.S.E’ to build managers’ capability in having supportive conversations”.

P.A.U.S.E stands for prepare, ask questions, understand, support and evaluate and can be applied to any workplace conversation from menopause to a reasonable adjustment.

She explains the thinking behind the conversation planner she made, incorporating PAUSE:

“The primary concern is that managers often lack the skills and confidence needed to support team members on sensitive topics effectively and this can be stressful for the manager and the colleague. The manager might be worried about saying the wrong thing (cause offence / get ’told off’ by HR) or make the situation worse but ignoring the issue can inadvertently cause more damage.”

The conversation planner aims to help managers structure and guide these sensitive conversations. 

“It’s not about being word-perfect or becoming an expert,” says Watson.”It’s about having good listening and empathy skills and knowing how to apply the tools / services at your disposal (e.g. offering flexibility on time / location of work, redistributing work, signposting to a supportive service such as the EAP or a relevant employee resource group etc.). By providing this framework, managers can feel more confident and prepared, ultimately fostering a more supportive workplace environment.

Watson recommends the Health & Safety Executive’s conversation planner as well as the US surgeon general framework for workplace mental health & wellbeing.

Don’t just socialise in the pub or on the golf course

“Lots of people from diverse backgrounds don’t drink and don’t go to the pub,” says Erika Brodnock MBE, founder of Kinhub. “So they often miss out on some of the networking opportunities.”

That’s not to say Brodnock things going to the pub is “wrong”, just that it shouldn’t be all you do as a manager to socialise with your team. Same with the golf course. “Is there a way of doing things that are also inclusive of all the other people in the team,  that aren’t exclusive like skiing or golf?”

Ask them these questions

Showing a genuine interest in your team members’ development will make them feel valued and more motivated to do a good job. 

Brodnock suggests these questions to get started:

  • What do you want for your career?
  • Do you want to make it to the top of the organisation, or are you happy where you are?
  • What are the steps you need to take to get where you want to be?

Talking to the younger generation

“The way younger generations want to receive information is very different to those in older generations,” says Wiseman. “To be an effective manager of younger team members, you’ll need to adapt your management and communication style.”

Wiseman gives the example of feedback. She’ll often hear from line managers that younger team members don’t want feedback, or can’t take feedback. But this isn’t, she says, strictly true:

“Younger generations are saying they don’t get good feedback. Why? Because managers wait too long to give it and, when they do, it’s not clear enough. They want really timely feedback, just after they’ve done something. And they want it to be constructive and understanding of their perspective. They also don’t want to hear ‘just do it because you should do it’. They want to understand why they are doing something.”

To get the best out of young talent, line managers need to be less hierarchical and treat them on more of an equal footing. Command and control management style won’t wash.

Find what motivates your team and develop their skills in this area

“Line managers need to give development opportunities that are not only based on progression, but also about helping their team feel more confident, engaged and able to contribute more,” says Wiseman. 

Wiseman takes the example of one of the businesses she works with in the UK, which took a very innovative approach to developing its talent. It recognised that some employees have a “side hustle”, a passion project to earn extra money while they work. In some sectors, such as hospitality, there is a sense this can lead to low engagement and high staff turnover.

Rather than shy away from this, the client decided to address it directly. In interviews they started asking candidates ‘what is your side hustle?’ and then they would find ways to use those talents, too, within the business.

“So, for instance, someone might be interested in a career in social media,” says Wiseman. “The client would then say, ‘you can do these hours waiting tables and then these hours working with our social media team’. That means that person becomes invested in the job and doesn’t want to leave because now they’re getting great exposure and learning about their side hustle.”

Obviously not all employers can offer this flexibility but the key is to discover your team’s true motivations and give them opportunities to build on these.

Can you craft your team’s jobs more in line with their motivations?

“Job crafting can be a really good way to do this and motivate different generations in line with their personal priorities, goals and values,” says Wiseman. 

She explains that this doesn’t necessarily mean changing the task, but it could be changing the emphasis of how the task is done in line with the team member’s area of interest:

“So, they could say that relationships are important to them. How do you put more focus on that in a task? For example, it could be about inviting a security guard who has limited interaction to focus on making 2 people smile each day. It’s about making the tasks, especially the ones that seem mundane, resonate with them more and feel more meaningful.”

Keep open to AI and how it could help you

While there is some alarmist talk about AI’s potential to take jobs, there is also growing recognition of how valuable AI can be as an extra resource. 

For example, Sandwell College’s HR Lead Sarah Keast, says she’s been exploring embedding AI into training of managers. For instance, there is a system the College is starting to use which uses virtual reality to put people in situations where they can practice conversations. It records their responses, analyses them and gives feedback on things like body language and word choice.

“New technology and AI coming through has a place in manager wellbeing training,” says Keast. “It should never fully replace the human aspect of training, but could be very useful as additional training support.”

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