Future of Work

Should your manager be responsible for your well-being at work?

While plenty of managers want to support any challenges to well-being at work, they don’t always have the tools to get them started.

While plenty of managers want to support any challenges to well-being at work, they don’t always have the tools to get them started. Image: Unsplash/LinkedIn Sales Solutions

Gabriela Riccardi
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Future of Work

  • Employees want more help for emotional and mental well-being, but managers are struggling to find the right balance for a culture of support, new research suggests.
  • A survey of global workers finds three-quarters of employees have higher expectations for how their company should support them.
  • In another recent report, 43% of managers said they were burned out, outranking both individual contributors and senior executives.
  • Here are some tips and resources to help bolster well-being at work.

According to new findings, workers want more support for their mental and emotional well-being. How can leaders respond?

“In our weekly team meetings, my supervisor has started having everyone answer the question, ‘How are you doing emotionally and mentally?’” the letter begins. “On one hand, he seems to mean well and be genuine in his concern.” But the writer is at the end of their wits—and they’re asking Alison Green’s popular Ask a Manager column to weigh in.

As someone with invisible illnesses, the writer says, they’re touchy sharing anything about their mental health with her employer. So what to do about the boss who pushes people to share how they’re doing emotionally at team meetings?

One answer feels clear: while employees should be able to talk about how they feel, requiring them to do it—and do it publicly—is an overstep. Although the letter dates back to 2020, it captures a conflict many managers are still grappling with.

The pandemic marked a new shift in the way we discuss mental health at work. But managers who want to encourage a culture of support are still struggling to strike the right balance. How do they do it without crossing their team’s sense of boundaries? How involved should they expect to be? And should managers feel responsible for their employees’ well-being at all?

The well-being balance

It’s understandable that managers feel conflicted about how to help their workers’ well-being. But new studies suggest that employees do want more support for their mental health.

Just take a recent Workforce Institute survey of global workers, which finds that three-quarters of employees report higher expectations for how their company supports them. In the US, another report from Lyra Health surfaces a surge in the number of employees who have opened up about their mental health at work—with numbers nearly doubling in the last year, from 23% to 43%.

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It’s no surprise workers are in search of support. We’re seeing record highs of global stress and worry, steady reports of burnout that persists, and workplaces that stack those challenges higher.

The Lyra Health report, for one, finds that four in five US workers experienced a mental health issue over the past year, from challenges like stress and burnout to clinical conditions including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And another study by Mind Share Partners found that 84% of surveyed workers said their workplace conditions had contributed to a mental health issue for them.

What's a manager to do?

Sure, companies can always offer more mental health resources, like EAPs and short-term counseling, or employee resource groups dedicated to mental health. But when it comes to initial support, the work often begins with team leaders.

“Managers are the frontline HR people,” says Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, in our guide to talking to your boss about mental health. With personal relationships at stake, managers have to balance supporting their employees with respecting their privacy, boundaries, and needs.

So, where do managers and other team leaders begin? For one, by looking ahead to the barricades in their path—and mapping what steps they can take to navigate around them.

Different strokes

The barricade: Every employee is different and often has a different idea of the kind of support they want. So managers can feel like their options—anonymized surveys checking in on well-being, more encouragement for mental health days, or an open-door policy—can start to feel like a game of Tetris. They aren’t sure how to make them all fit together.

One step to surmount it: Before assessing individual needs, step back and assess your team-wide culture. When your practices show your team values well-being, employees will be more willing to name what they need.

For one, the US Surgeon General offers a set of reflection questions managers can use to design their team’s culture around mental and emotional well-being. Action-oriented and specific, the questions range from balance-building strategies to connection-creating tactics. With them, managers can evaluate if the team culture offers a baseline of support—then move on to individual needs.

Tapped out of tools

The barricade: While plenty of managers want to support any challenges to well-being at work, they don’t always have the tools to get them started. Just think of that well-meaning but misguided manager who pushed his employees to share how they were doing emotionally and mentally.

One step to surmount it: Push for proper training for mental and emotional support. Research shows that even three hours of mental health training makes managers motivated to promote well-being at work. Good training can give leaders guardrails on how to do it right without pushing people beyond their limits.

To get started, inclusion network EARN offers a wealth of resources in its mental health toolkit. And in a peer-driven approach, managers can also work to establish peer listening programs, which train colleagues to actively listen and navigate mental health conversations among peers.

Bigger burdens

The barricade: Missing from many of these conversations? Managers are carrying their own mental and emotional challenges, too. For one: in the Future Forum’s latest pulse report, 43% of managers reported being burned out, outranking both individual contributors and senior executives.

One step to surmount it: Model good mental health practices for yourself—and you’ll open the door for your team to follow suit. Name when you’re headed out for a walk, planning a short staycation, or taking time to prioritize something in your personal life. If you’re taking a mental health day and feel comfortable saying so, share it. Actually turn off your notifications after hours. Be a beacon of balance.

When managers model behaviors for well-being, their team members will feel like they can follow suit—setting boundaries and prioritizing their own mental health.

The path ahead

When we ask if managers should feel responsible for their employees’ well-being, the evidence points to yes. Workers report that they want more support at work for their mental and emotional health. Managers and team leaders just need to know how.

By acknowledging differences among teammates, a need for tools and training, and the burdens managers carry themselves, we can be better-equipped to offer the right kind of support—and bolster better well-being in and out of the workplace.

More resources for well-being at work

😌 To relieve burnout, try the care-less approach. It may be counterintuitive, but the way to commit to your work might be to care a little less.

🚧 There are ways to set boundaries at work without being labeled a jerk. One suggestion: acknowledge the person who’ll step in when you have to take a break.

🔥 Six telltale signals can explain the real reason you’re burning out. Two leading burnout researchers map the core areas that show the root causes of burnout.

🌎 You might be confusing your burnout with bigger systemic problems. The next time you feel burnt, examine if the issue is bigger than you—and how addressing the system could solve the problem.

💬 Start conversations about mental health through four common scenarios. Our guide to talking to your boss about well-being.

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Future of WorkFuture of WorkMental Health
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