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September 21, 2023

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A guide for managers: Supporting employee wellbeing

This guide, written by Heather Beach, Founder of The Healthy Work Company, serves as a go-to resource to help managers support team members who may be experiencing stress or struggling with their mental health, including warning signs, duty of care and top tips. 


Did you know that according to recent research, 69% of your wellbeing at work is dictated by your manager?

In today’s challenging times, it makes sense for all of us to hone our skills in having empathetic conversations with someone struggling and we don’t have to be a Mental Health First Aider to do so.

Managers can find these conversations a struggle to initiate – they worry about being intrusive or making the situation worse.  

Managers are not experts in mental health. Not therapists, counsellors or life coaches, but we can be empathetic listeners and ask good questions to encourage a person to get the right support, and crucially, we have a duty of care to the individual.

As health and safety professionals, we know how crucial wellbeing is. Wellbeing may be integral to our role, or part of it, but regardless, a person’s wellbeing also impacts on their safety.

Use this information to identify signs of stress, initiate conversations, co-create a plan and seek further assistance when needed.  And pass it on to your people managers to support them too.

A – Aware that someone isn’t themselves: Spotting signs of stress 

  • Keep an eye out for behavioural changes such as increased irritability, mood swings, or decreased motivation
  • Pay attention to physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, or increased absence
  • Pick up on any noticeable decline in work performance, or difficulty concentrating

Consider how to ‘Approach, Ask and Assess’: Initiating a conversation with someone struggling  

  • How urgently do you need to speak to them?  Consider that waiting for the perfect time might not be possible, but ensure privacy and that you have the time

We are looking primarily for signs that someone isn’t themselves. Perhaps they are usually easy going and become irritable; perhaps they seem more cynical or withdrawn than usual, sometimes a colleague might draw their concerns to your attention.

We are also looking for physical signs. Unexplained ongoing throat infections or stomach problems, weight loss or gain, looking tired and perhaps not taking care of themselves. Sometimes it may even be rashes or hair loss.

Often however, the first signs we will see that there is a problem are when someone’s performance is impacted. As a manager we may feel irritated when someone doesn’t perform the way they normally do but we should ask ourselves (and them!) why. It could be that they are overloaded with work, have an issue with their role, we haven’t briefed them well enough or, perhaps they have something going on at home. Most people don’t perform well for a reason!


Approaching the individual will depend on lots of factors

  • Our relationship with that individual and how we know they like to be dealt with. Are they very direct and likely to appreciate that kind of approach? Are they more private and introverted and may want you to couch your question more sensitively?  
  • How urgent do we feel the situation is? In my view, we should just normalise pointing out concerns in a way that shows we are genuinely interested in the answer, as quickly as possible.  Many people are struggling in today’s world and addressing issues early on can prevent them from snowballing into significant challenges. It’s vital to create a safe space where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns.  
  • Are we seeing them face to face soon and can we create an opportunity to take them for a walk, a coffee or a drink? If we can, we should avoid sitting opposite someone with a table between us – people may feel more comfortable to speak when side by side or at a corner angle. Walking and talking can be gold.
  • If we are not seeing them face to face, we may want to consider a phone call rather than an approach online via zoom (or equivalent). For some people, it can be extremely uncomfortable to be staring you in the face when they share a difficult issue.

Asking and Assessing

We may need to ask twice, or at least ensure we are asking in a way which shows we are genuinely interested in the answer. One trick is to ask people regularly “on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being terrible and 10 being amazing, how are you today” or “how are you really”.

Be ready with a couple of examples of what we have noticed which has given us concern and be wary of lengthy preambles of small talk. People generally pick up on a subtext that you want to talk to them.

It can be tempting to rehearse all the angles a conversation could take in our heads beforehand. This can actually be counterproductive as it plays into our preconceptions of an individual and how a conversation with them would go. In fact the only things we need to prepare are:

  • Ourselves – are we in the right frame of mind or stressed ourselves? Do we have adequate time for that individual
  • A couple of examples of what we have noticed (and make sure we come from “I” and don’t say “we’ve noticed”)
  • It might be useful to know some of the company resources you may have available (see C for C-create a plan further below)

If someone is using language which suggests they may be considering harming themselves or taking their own life, we should ask directly. Contrary to what we may think, it won’t put an idea into their heads but conversely it may be a relief to talk about it.  We may want to seek help from our EAP, the Samaritans or emergency services. (There are also courses available on Suicide First Aid)

B – Being present in the conversation: active non- judgemental listening 

This is such a difficult, yet important skill for humans. We tend to want to solve issues as quickly as we can – which can get in the way of active, non-judgemental listening. We need to provide the individual first and foremost with the space to say everything they need to say, to feel heard and acknowledged. Then we can use good questioning to create a plan of next steps.

By allowing someone space to talk, they can shape their thoughts and sometimes find their own answers (especially if you ask really good questions).

Connecting with someone and showing that we care may make a huge contribution to them (and to us!). Indeed, support from others is a key factor for resilience and recovery.

This is the hardest and most important part of our role. It is challenging because we are hardwired to be helpful, to give advice, to think about how we can share our own experience, and instead we need to hold ourselves in check.

We often listen to respond, instead of really listening and acknowledging what the person has said. Whilst we do want them to go away with some next actions and support, we need to let them say all they have to say, because if we don’t we risk alienating them and looking like we are very poor listeners.

The focus instead should be on understanding, empathising and perhaps normalising what the person is going through rather than offering immediate solutions. 

We will notice ourselves judging, solving, relating to our own experience – and we just bring ourselves back to listening. Consider using these active listening tools to acknowledge the person has been heard and understood:

  • Summarising, reflecting what the person has said back to them
  • Clarifying questions
  • Body language – nods and encouraging sounds
  • Silence – or at least a pause enabling you and the person to collect your thoughts

C – Co-create a plan for further action: Implementation of a plan with that individual and communication with HR

  • Collaborate with the individual first and foremost to think about the support they need right now in the role. This may involve access to your Employee Assistance programme (EAP), counselling, a visit to the GP and/or time off.  
  • Consider and discuss reasonable adjustments to the role and check in with HR before you offer formal adjustments such as fewer working hours or a change in role.

As we have seen in “B for Be present”, instead of imposing solutions, we should encourage individuals to participate in creating a plan that addresses their challenges. By jumping in too early with our ideas, they may feel you have minimised their problem and don’t really care or understand. Co-creation fosters a sense of ownership and collaboration, resulting in more sustainable outcomes.  The most effective way of doing this is to ask good questions!

A plan might consist of:

  • Things the individual can do for themselves (like phoning the GP, speaking to other people, prioritising their sleep/exercise/nutrition). It may also comprise efforts from you as their manager, or other members of the team to buddy and mentor.  It may involve more training or direct supervision for a period, time off, some help in re-prioritisation of tasks, some mediation – it all depends on the issues raised.
  • Your EAP can be a great signposting resource – if you don’t have one then consider speaking to your HR team about how your organisation can signpost and pay for counselling. An EAP will provide financial and legal advice and counselling (generally much speedier than your GP can support with this)
  • You shouldn’t expect yourself (or them) to have all the solutions there and then, in fact it can be a good idea to take time out to consider – and to suggest they do the same. 
  • You might need to consider formal or informal adjustments to the role. An informal adjustment might be just lightening the workload temporarily, time off for appointments,  or some additional flexibility on hours or where they work from – as long as this is normally the way your business functions. Once you get into role changes, shorter hours or a change in work location (outside of your normal policies) then you need to get your HR team involved. This is called a reasonable adjustment and as we will see in “D for Duties”, is really important to consider and be seen to consider for most ongoing health issues.

It is usually a good idea to inform your HR team once an individual says they are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression or another chronic health issue. They will support you in ensuring you manage the situation in line with the Equality act 2010. You may also consider a referral to your Occupational Health team.

D – Manager duties under HR and Health and Safety law

As someone’s manager, unlike a mental health first aid response (where we need to ensure we keep confidentiality but don’t have a duty to follow up) we do have a duty of care towards team members and we are required to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the individual. We may have to keep the Equalities Act 2010 in mind when seeking reasonable adjustments to their work.  

In managing wellbeing at work, people managers have legal duties to comply with (which it is worth noting, or not shared by mental health first aiders).

The duties are under health and safety regulations –  a duty of care to ensure that the organisation manages stress appropriately, and under the Equality Act 2010 which contains laws against Disability Discrimination. Health and mental health issues may be considered disabilities (under certain circumstances).

Under the Health and Safety at Work act, consider using an organisational stress risk assessment. It may also be a good idea to consider an Individual stress risk assessment when someone is returning from work after ill health. Mind’s Wellness Action plans form a similar role.

Golden rules for people managers to ensure you stay within your duties as a people manager:

Prevention first

Check in regularly with your team, ensuring that they have the time and resources to do their job appropriately. When issues do arise, ensure you start conversations early and agree how you can support the individual as an organisation and ensure that you are clear on review dates. 

Considerations on confidentiality

Opening up about any health concerns can be tough, especially as mental health worries can be very personal. You should reassure the employee that you will not share anything they tell you, unless there’s a good reason to. Note that you may indeed need to discuss what the individual raises with your HR business partner, occupational health provider or your own manager, and you should be clear about this in your conversation.  Note this differs entirely on advice to mental health first aiders who should not discuss the conversation unless there is a risk to life.

Documenting and follow up

On completing each conversation, write a short-written summary for the individual about what you discussed and what was agreed, and email it to them. This creates clarity and shows the conversation took place. Ensure you follow up.

Reasonable adjustments

If someone says they are struggling with a mental ill health issue which may end up being considered a disability under the Equality Act or equivalent, you should demonstrate that you have considered reasonable adjustments and where these are not practicable for you as an organisation, that you have communicated as to why they are not practicable. In parts of Europe, a company doctor will recommend these adjustments. These adjustments should be time limited and reviewed.

Use internal resources

Involve HR and their specialists and follow company procedures.

Sickness absence

When someone is off sick, stay in contact and always do a return-to-work interview.

People managers have a crucial role in ensuring wellbeing of their team. By fulfilling their managerial duties within the legal framework, managers can confidently navigate these conversations while protecting the interests of both employees and the organisation.

Further Reading: Useful Websites

For additional information and resources, check out the following websites:

Are you a people manager? Test your wellbeing management skills here!


Remember, prioritising employee wellbeing is essential for creating a safe, healthy, and productive work environment. By being proactive and supportive, you can make a positive impact on the mental health of your team members.

Mastering the art of employee conversations is a great skill for everyone and essential for managers and supervisors. It is not an exact science; it is more of an art.

In our courses, we show this using actors in a technique called forum theatre, where the delegates coach the actors to respond more effectively. By equipping ourselves with effective communication skills, sensitivity, and a focus on early intervention and stress prevention, managers particularly can cultivate a supportive workplace environment that promotes employee well-being and engagement.

Healthy Work Company runs a Manager Wellbeing Conversations course in which they use actors to help managers to see the nuances of these types of conversations.

Heather Beach

Heather Beach, author of a brand new book, released this week “I’m a Boss, Not a Shrink,” offers invaluable insights into managing these sensitive conversations. Through her training business, Healthy Work Company, Heather has empowered managers worldwide, working with organisations such as ITV, Kuehne and Nagel, Luton Airport, Keolis Amey Docklands, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. 

Her training program utilises the ABCD mnemonic to guide managers through these crucial conversations, and it has gained widespread adoption, even being integrated into mental health courses by Highfield Qualifications.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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