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How should HR support managers on staff wellbeing as the Covid crisis continues?

10 Jun 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Line managers will need new skills as well as extra guidance on looking after themselves as some employees return to work while others continue to do their jobs from home

As the full impact of coronavirus is felt across the UK’s workforce, middle management has been the first port of call for many workers seeking answers. When lockdown scattered well-established teams to a new virtual way of working, most employees no doubt turned to their line managers for support first.

In turn, managers have dealt with an onslaught of changes and challenges to the way they manage and support their teams. And this is a level of support that will need to continue in a post-lockdown world as staff gradually return to places of work.

As Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said during a recent CIPD webinar, Managing the psychological impact of Covid-19: “Employers have a fundamental duty of care for physical and mental wellbeing under the Health And Safety At Work Act,” – and much of the responsibility for fulfilling this duty in practice will fall at line managers’ feet. 

Also speaking during this webinar, Emma Donaldson-Feilder, director at Affinity Coaching and Supervision, said it was vital to recognise mental health issues were already prevalent within the UK workforce before the pandemic hit. 

“If you add the psychological strain imposed by the initial Covid crisis and lockdown and all of the repercussions, together with the uncertainty and concerns around the recovery phase, the risk for mental health and high levels of emotion is really significant,” she said. 

New skills

As line managers are forced to juggle various responsibilities, some of these will require new soft skills, Wilmott said during the webinar. He said the role of line managers in supporting wellbeing was “absolutely fundamental” and that sustaining a positive psychological contract with employees during this time was “paramount”. 

“Empathy, support and flexibility are key, and it's crucial line managers understand the importance of finding time to have one-to-one conversations with their employees and  prioritise these conversations,” said Willmott. He added that early intervention with escalating mental health issues was key, and that line managers were well placed to spot the warning signs. 

He said managers did not need to be mental health experts, but would need to be equipped with skills such as empathy and listening to have those open conversations with employees.  

Going beyond the minimum

While organisations had a fundamental duty of care to their entire workforces when it comes to physical and mental wellbeing under the Health and Safety at Work Act, Willmott argued that the current crisis called for more than the bare minimum. 

“In the current situation the minimum standards set by law are unlikely to be sufficient to support employees through the many different potential mental health and wellbeing impacts [as a result of Covid-19],” said Willmott. “Employers should make changes or adjustments where possible to support mental health.” 

Understanding each individual’s unique circumstance 

Willmott added that the impact would be different for the various groups within organisations. For example, key workers could be under increased pressure and stress while those working from home may have benefited from the experience. However, he added: “Some [of those working from home] may have had increased stress from juggling work-life balance, or may have felt isolated or have additional caring responsibilities.” 

Donaldson-Feilder agreed the impact would be different for each individual depending on their circumstance. “It will be different for each individual depending on their external circumstance and their internal perspective and attitudes,” said Donaldson-Feilder.

Willmott added that this would depend on the sector, job role, household circumstances (such as caring responsibilities or living with someone at high risk), individual characteristics and personal resilience. “All of these factors will mean the impact will be different for each individual and employers will have to think about how they will respond to different challenges,” he said. 

Managers also need support 

The demands on line managers currently would have an impact on their own wellbeing, Willmott warned. “Line managers will need support,” he said. 

“They will have challenging conversations with employees who have suffered bereavements or [are] struggling to balance care with work, and they will need support so they know how to help in those complex situations.

“Managers will be under acute pressure to handle conflicting demands, so how managers are managed should recognise the pressure they are under.”

Donaldson-Feilder added: “The line managers themselves could be a source of stress or wellbeing for employees, but they have a vital role in spotting problems and as a people professional you rely on the line manager to be your eyes and ears.”

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