MAD World hot topic: ‘We have to really invest in line management if we want to get wellbeing right’


These were the words of Simon Blake OBE, Chief executive of MHFA England, speaking as part of a MAD World panel on wellbeing washing. He accompanied them with a striking stat showing that the vast majority of employers are not investing in line management nearly enough: 

75% of employees become a line manager without any training, and are often expected to pick up this people remit in addition to their ‘day job’.

This dire lack of training, alongside the growing recognition now that line managers have a responsibility to look out for their team members’ wellbeing, rather than see this as ‘HR’s job’, is taking its toll. 

Both line managers and employees are impacted

It’s negatively impacting both the line manager’s wellbeing and the employees reporting to the line manager.

“Line managers have seen the biggest increase in burnout over the last three years,” said Marcus Herbert, Head of Wellbeing at the British Safety Council, during a MAD World Panel on creating psychologically safe teams. 

At the same time, employees are saying that the management style of their line manager is the third top reason for their stress, according to a CIPD and Simply Health survey.

Managers lack vital people skills

This situation has arisen, according to Carole Spiers, Chair, International Stress Management Association (ISMA), who was also on this panel, because managers are usually promoted into a post because of their technical skills, not because of their people management skills. 

And, as we’ve already established, most companies are not investing enough in line manager training to help them make the transition to increased people management. Traditionally, too, training is the first budget to be cut in tough times, like the current cost of living crisis and uncertain economic markets.

But Spiers argued that cutting line manager training is a false economy because, as the adage goes, “people leave bosses not jobs”. She believes that even a minimal amount of line manager training can make a huge difference. In her opinion the most important focus for training should be building listening skills.

Listening skills are the most important

Listening, she said, is the cornerstone of psychological safety teams:

“This doesn’t mean employers expect line managers to be counsellors. We’re not training them to be counsellors; we’re training them to listen, actively listen. If they do this, the role of the line manager can be fundamental to improving health, decreasing stress and improving performance and productivity.”

She added that there’s an alleviation of stress for the employee when they can speak up and feel they are heard and, so, feel their contribution to the workplace is “valued and worthwhile”: 

“Rather than an emotional dumping ground, line managers need to create an atmosphere where people feel safe and confident to say how they’re feeling,” she said.

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Listen then act

Khushboo Patel, Head of Engagement & Inclusion, Metro Bank, also on this panel, agreed but added that it’s not enough to just listen. Line managers also have to take action if possible. “If, for example, a colleague comes to you, the line manager, and says resourcing is an issue and they feel under resourced then you can’t just turn around and say ‘here’s a webinar on how to look after your wellbeing’. That is just not going to work,” she said. “You need to have a look at resourcing and look into solutions.” 

A common complaint Spiers hears from line managers that she trains is that they “haven’t got the time to listen”.

“To which I tell them, ‘you haven’t got the time not to listen’ as if they don’t, this team member could soon end up as an absenteeism statistic,” she said. 

Some people aren’t natural managers

Nevertheless, with the best will in the world, some people, even with significant training, may not ever be ideally suited to people management, whereas others may have a natural flair for it. These less people-oriented managers can focus on delegating and signposting colleagues to the appropriate resources, or person. As Carrie Carlisle, a previous keynote speaker at MAD World along with her husband ex-professional footballer Clarke, and delegate at this year’s conference, had this message for line managers:

“If you’re someone who doesn’t like talking about emotive things, don’t pretend you are. Instead, delegate to someone who is good at this. Otherwise, that’s when the line manager ends up burning out.”

Signposting to services

Karen Sancto, EMEA Benefits (MEA), Microsoft, said that “the reality is that not all managers are approachable” but if a company is committed to wellbeing, then this shouldn’t mean an individual isn’t able to easily access resources regardless of their line manager: “In our organisation, for example, there are ERGs and listening groups, and confidential services, etc. So I would challenge any employee who said they had no one to go to.”

The biggest bugbear for her is that no matter how fantastic and empathetic a line manager may be, they can’t control the actions of an individual:

“Yes, line managers can really provide that human touch and personal gateway to supporting employee wellbeing. And yes, we can train our managers and make many resources and toolkits available. And yes, we can signpost. And spot signs. But it all ends up with the employee taking accountability. At the end of the day, the employee has to be the one to access those.”

Who is responsible?

As Sancto said, this brings us to one of the debates currently happening in the wellbeing industry around who is accountable for wellbeing – is it the line manager? Is it the individual? Is it the organisation?” (for more on that debate see this feature)

Panellists agree that wellbeing needs to start with culture or line managers and employees won’t buy into any wellbeing interventions, which dooms them to failure from the outset. As Head of Wellbeing at Saga, Julia Biles, who also spoke at MAD World on the wellbeing washing panel, said: “The line manager has really got to believe that the organisation is caring and actually wants to make a difference and then I think everything flows from there.”

Getting line manager buy-in

Part of getting line managers to “believe” in prioritising their team’s wellbeing is ensuring they are clear, says Biles, of “what the strategy around wellbeing actually is and how it links to the business strategy”.

Training in her opinion should be focused around helping managers to make “people first decisions” that seamlessly integrate wellbeing into the day to day working of the team. “Rather than forcing a line manager to have a conversation with someone about their wellbeing and having a target to get them signed up to an app,” she said.

Patel wholeheartedly agreed that line managers must be given “confidence, capability and knowledge” but also that “any tools are useless unless you create the right environment for colleagues to use them”.

So, while the panel agreed that line managers desperately need more training and support to take on the new world of work, this on its own is not enough and – even – pointless without the right culture behind them.

As Spiers said, in her experience of training hundreds of line managers:

“You can introduce a listening skills toolkit but then have a line manager that doesn’t listen, or doesn’t have time to listen. That won’t work. All the training courses in the world, or all the toolkits in the world, are only relevant if they become a part of the culture. That’s when training and toolkits work.”

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