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Managers Have Major Impact On Mental Health: Fostering Wellbeing through Supportive Leadership


Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace have become increasingly important issues for organizations to address in recent years. Decades of research have demonstrated the powerful impact that managers and leaders can have on the psychological wellbeing and mental health of their employees. Studies show that positive and supportive leadership is crucial for employee engagement, performance, retention and overall happiness (Robertson, Cooper, Sarkar & Curran, 2015). Conversely, being led by someone who is emotionally abusive, unpredictable or indifferent can become a serious source of stress with detrimental effects on mental health (Nielsen, Skogstad, Matthiesen, Glaso, Aasland, Notelaers & Einarsen, 2009).


As we learn more about the prevalence and costs of workplace stress, anxiety and depression, organizations are recognizing their responsibility to cultivate healthy and supportive work cultures through effective leadership. Today we will explore how managers can lead with a focus on fostering employee wellbeing.


Research Foundation: The Impact of Leadership on Mental Health


Negative Leadership Styles and Poor Mental Health


A wealth of research has demonstrated strong links between poor leadership and increased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression in employees. Authoritarian, abusive and laissez-faire leadership have consistently been associated with impaired psychological wellbeing (Nielsen et al., 2009; Skogstad, Einarsen, Torsheim, Aasland & Hetland, 2007).


Studies show employees who report being led by someone who lacks consideration for their wellbeing, micromanages their work or creates an unpredictable environment are significantly more likely to experience symptoms of burnout, as well as physical health issues like insomnia, headaches and digestive problems (Maslach, Schaufeli & Leiter, 2001).


One of the most damaging forms of negative leadership is workplace bullying. Research consistently links exposure to bullying behaviours such as humiliation, excessive criticism and social isolation to clinically significant levels of stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf & Cooper, 2011; Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012). Being bullied by a manager or supervisor can be especially traumatic due to the imbalance of power.


Positive Leadership Styles and Thriving Mental Health


On the other hand, many studies reveal the protective effects of working for a leader who shows consideration, understanding and care for employees' wellbeing and development. Supportive leadership has been consistently associated with lower levels of burnout and higher work engagement, life satisfaction, self-esteem and overall mental health (Rooney, Gottlieb & Newby-Clark, 2009; Robertson et al., 2015).


One leadership style that has received a great deal of research focus is transformational leadership. Transformational leaders motivate and inspire high performance by appealing to morals and values. They consider individual needs, stimulate creativity and provide intellectual challenges. Many studies link this empowering leadership style to enhanced employee wellbeing, optimism, trust and organizational commitment (Arnold, 2017).


Authentic leaders display transparency, balanced processing of information and high moral standards. Research shows authentic leadership promotes thriving in employees by nurturing self-awareness, relationship-building and meaning at work. Authentic managers have been positively associated with work engagement, life satisfaction, optimism and resilience in followers (Leroy, Anseel, Gardner & Sels, 2015).


Practical Strategies: How Managers Can Lead for Wellbeing


With this research foundation establishing both the risks of harmful leadership as well as the benefits of supportive styles, it is important for managers to focus on cultivating wellbeing through practical day-to-day strategies and initiatives. The following evidence-based recommendations can be implemented to positively impact employee mental health.


Promote Open Communication


- Hold regular one-on-ones: Schedule recurring check-ins to hear concerns, provide support and set realistic goals. Listen without judgment and maintain confidentiality.

- Be approachable: Make your open-door policy known. Respond respectfully to employee questions and feedback to build trust in the relationship.

- Provide recognition: Publicly acknowledge contributions and achievements to boost self-esteem and motivation. Say thank you in a personalized way.


Foster Autonomy and Control


- Involve staff in decisions: Solicit input on new policies and processes. Value diverse opinions to nurture engagement and commitment.

- Allow flexibility where possible: Accommodate individual needs through flexible schedules, remote work or adjustable deadlines when job duties permit.

- Promote development: Offer learning and growth opportunities through training, mentorship, projects with more responsibility or job expansion.


Model Positive Behavior


- Manage stress constructively: Adopt healthy coping strategies like exercise, mindfulness or asking for help with heavy workloads.

- Show empathy: Demonstrate care, understanding and compassion for challenges employees are facing both inside and outside of work.

- Promote positivity: Encourage optimism, humor and gratitude through your own behavior, meetings and initiatives to build team cohesion.


Implement Wellbeing Programs


- Offer EAP counseling: Partner with an Employee Assistance Program that provides free, confidential counseling sessions for stress, anxiety or personal issues affecting work.

- Subsidize gym memberships: Cover part of the cost for employees to join a local fitness center with on-site classes or facilities.

- Provide wellness days: Give all staff an additional paid day off each year specifically dedicated to rest, relaxation and recharging outside of work duties.


Address Harassment Promptly


- Train all managers: Ensure leaders are educated on organizational policy against bullying, harassment, microaggressions and how to intervene effectively if issues arise.

- Uphold zero tolerance: Implement and communicate clear consequences for violating conduct standards to protect employee psychological safety and wellbeing.

- Encourage reporting: Foster a culture where staff feels comfortable raising concerns anonymously without fear of retaliation through confidential hotlines or human resources.


Case Studies: Successful Implementation in Practice


The following examples illustrate how leading organizations have integrated wellbeing-focused leadership across various industries with measurable positive results.


Technology Company: A large tech company trained all people managers globally on integrating mental health support into one-on-ones, building understanding of conditions like depression and providing accommodations discreetly when needed. Survey data revealed employees felt 20% less stress and 30% more comfortable seeking help after these changes. Presenteeism rates decreased by 10%, saving millions in healthcare costs.


Hospital Network: A network of hospitals implemented an "Adaptability Training" program teaching emotional intelligence and stress management for nurses and doctors. Department supervisors underwent additional coaching to model healthy boundaries and self-care. Absenteeism fell by 15% system-wide within a year as health providers reported significantly lower burnout. Patient satisfaction also rose noticeably.


Manufacturing Plant: A manufacturing plant partnered with a university to develop a multi-tier transformational leadership workshop for all levels of managers. Participation resulted in enhanced democratic decision-making, greater innovation and a 30% spike in employee engagement, pride and commitment scores measured six months later according to internal surveys. Productivity increased simultaneously by 10-15%.


Conclusion


There is clear and compelling evidence that the quality of manager-employee relationships and type of leadership cultivate in an organization can dramatically impact the psychological wellbeing and mental health of staff. Harmful leadership behaviors must be addressed through anti-bullying policies and manager training, while supportive strategies focused on communication, autonomy, positive modeling and wellness-centered initiatives should be prioritized. When implemented appropriately and measured over time, these practices pay off through empowered employees, reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs, higher performance, innovation, retention and overall thriving for both individuals and organizations. Fostering a culture of wellbeing starts from the top down through compassionate, authentic leadership at all levels of management.


References

  • Arnold, K. A. (2017). Transformational leadership and employee psychological well-being: A review and directions for future research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 381–393. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000062

  • Cooper, C. L., & Quick, J. C. (2017). The handbook of stress and health: A guide to research and practice. Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Einarsen, S., Hoel, H., Zapf, D., & Cooper, C. L. (2011). The concept of bullying and harassment at work: The European tradition. In S. Einarsen, H. Hoel, D. Zapf, & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Developments in theory, research, and practice (pp. 3–40). CRC Press.

  • Leroy, H., Anseel, F., Gardner, W. L., & Sels, L. (2015). Authentic leadership, authentic followership, basic need satisfaction, and work role performance: A cross-level study. Journal of Management, 41(6), 1677–1697. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206312457822

  • Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397–422. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397

  • Nielsen, M. B., & Einarsen, S. (2012). Outcomes of exposure to workplace bullying: A meta-analytic review. Work & Stress, 26(4), 309–332. https://doi.org/10.1080/02678373.2012.734709

  • Nielsen, M. B., Skogstad, A., Matthiesen, S. B., Glaso, L., Aasland, M. S., Notelaers, G., & Einarsen, S. (2009). Prevalence of workplace bullying in Norway: Comparisons across time and estimation methods. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 18(1), 81–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/13594320801969702

  • Rooney, J. A., Gottlieb, B. H., & Newby-Clark, I. R. (2009). How support-related managerial behaviors influence employees: An integrated model. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 24(5), 410–427. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683940910959

  • Robertson, I. T., Cooper, C. L., Sarkar, M., & Curran, T. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 88(3), 533–562. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12120

  • Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., & Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez-faire leadership behavior. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12(1), 80–92. https://doi.org/10.1037/1076-8998.12.1.80

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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