What role does a manager play in supporting employee well-being?

What role does a manager play in supporting employee well-being?

Managers can offer so much more than an EAP link

The question was crystallized for me recently when meeting with a client to discuss their well-being program communication strategy. As we discussed their employee wellness program campaigns, I asked (what I thought) was an innocuous question: “How are you leveraging your managers to support your employees? Should we develop a specific set of tools and a comms strategy for them?” The question was met with mild shock: “They’re already monitoring work performance, strategy and deliverables. If it’s a well-being related issue, we’d want that employee to engage with the benefits team.”

In retrospect, the response shouldn’t have been surprising. Traditionally, we separate employee and manager interactions from the employee’s health and well-being for a variety of reasons: Most managers aren’t trained in seeing the signals of poor health and well-being and wouldn’t necessarily have the tools to handle those signals even if they did recognize a problem. Further, employees don’t want to be seen as weak or needy, not-to-mention most Legal and Human Resource departments foresee all sorts of complaints against management for even asking.

While the reasons make sense, the reality of today’s work situations necessitates a deeper look at these challenges.

For years, we’ve talked about employees feeling overwhelmed as a major cause of poor productivity and burn out. What started as a fairly one-dimensional understanding of electronic information overload and “always on,” electronic communications has morphed into a more nuanced view of the burdens of work on workplace mental health, well-being and connectedness.

What’s so telling in these analyses: everyone agrees that supporting employees through these challenges is paramount, but few leaders propose specific strategies to solve them. Simply publishing access to resources is insufficient. In short, leaders need to invite employees to join them “at the table” to proactively discuss their well-being rather than waiting for them to figure it out on their own–otherwise, by the time an employee chooses to react to their own challenges, it’s usually after that issue has progressed from periodic to chronic or acute.

One approach? Training managers to be better well-being coaches.

Rather than simply focusing on the symptoms, trained managers need to recognize the signs of poor well-being and focus on coaching around the causes rather than simply calling out the outcomes.”

Sean Bell

Learn more about the way’s managers can support employees’ mental health (HBR.org).

Unsurprisingly good managers are in the unique position to see the earliest signs of employee burnout, anxiety, exhaustion, or physical illness. These usually show up in a decline in good communication skills, a lack of ability to effectively team up and work together with others, delays in deliverables or poor quality in deliverables, or more frequent requests for sick leave or mental well-being days. Rather than simply focusing on the symptoms, trained managers need to recognize the signs of poor well-being and focus on coaching around the causes rather than simply calling out the outcomes.

Most managers default to simple suggestions like recommending someone call the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or reach out to the Human Resources department for support. By doing so, managers miss a key opportunity to appropriately engage and to coach their employees back to a state of well-being.

This isn’t to suggest that this should be done haphazardly or without training. Below are two examples that capture a common employee situation but with different approaches in how it is managed.

Example 1:

Manager: “Jim, I’ve heard from members on the team that you attacked them after a client call for not being prepared and that your tone was more focused on blame vs. constructive feedback. What’s the situation here?”

Jim: “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just over-tired and I snapped a bit. It’s been super stressful at home with the kids back in school but still at home.”

Manager: “Well, you might call our EAP but I hope I don’t hear about a situation like that again. Please call the team to apologize. I expect better.” 

Example 2:

Manager: “Jim, I’ve heard from members on the team that you attacked them after a client call for not being prepared and that your tone was more focused on blame vs. constructive feedback. What’s the situation here?” 

Jim: “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just over-tired and I snapped a bit. It’s been super stressful at home with the kids back in school but still at home.”

Manager: “I bet. It’s been a challenge for a lot of folks. How are you handling the stress?”

 Jim: “Don’t worry. It won’t happen again.”

 Manager: “I’m not worried about this specific situation. You can easily call the team back and apologize but let’s discuss how you’re handling your stress because the school situation isn’t going to go away any time soon. For me, I’ve been relying on a brisk walk in the afternoon to help burn off some tension and I do my calls while walking. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s helping. What about you?”

 Jim: “Well, I’m not doing much right now. I just feel so busy.”

Manager: “If you’re up for it, how about we hold each other accountable to a 30-minute walk for our 1:1’s each week. It’s a start. Also, were you aware that the company’s well-being program offers coaches who can suggest other ways you can better manage through these challenges. I’ve got the URL here to sign up for a call. Want me to send it to you?”

 Jim: “Thanks! I really appreciate the support.” 

Manager: “We can’t expect better of each other if we don’t actively work on getting through a challenging time together. Let’s add an agenda item to our 1:1s to check on how we’re managing through the challenges.”


The difference between the two examples? In the second example, the manager realized that the work and life issues were, unsurprisingly, intertwined and, rather than relying on the employee to “figure it out,” was empathetic (a common connection on challenging issue) and provided specific coaching on how the employee might improve his personal well-being (a specific call-to-action with an encouraged, and appropriate, “small step”).

Ultimately, which example do you believe will ensure Jim is more productive in team meetings? 

As companies work their way through the “new normal,” it’s critical that they outfit their managers with the right tools, language and training to help employees not just maintain work performance, but also to also help them navigate the inter-related elements of work and personal life that have increasingly become intertwined and omnipresent in employee well-being.


Aduro’s Integrated Mental Health services empowers people leaders to promote mental health of team members through tools, coaching and community. Learn how these services take a holistic, proactive and inclusive approach to improve employee mental health.


Sean Bell is Aduro’s Chief Operating Officer. He brings 20 years of experience leading high-growth startups. Bell is dedicated to helping companies navigating the “new normal” of the intertwined work and home lives many of us are facing today. For more articles and to follow Sean Bell, find him on LinkedIn.