Line managers and Wellbeing – How far does it go?

The move towards a strategic HR approach for HR managers can be seen as freeing up the department to concentrate on the change agent and strategic partnership roles. Renwick[1] argues that this development has led to the concern that in search for legitimacy and status for the HR function, managers are neglecting the basics. Donaldson-Feilder and Lewis[2]  argued that good leadership is key to ensuring mental health and wellbeing are met in organisations. For many employees the way in which they are treated by their line manager makes a vast difference to how they feel at work. Having good support and feeling valued by the manager can help individuals to overcome difficulties including mental health problems. On the other hand, a negative or disorganised line manager can cause employees stress, anxiety and depression.

In addition to having an impact on employee mental health managers can also act as a ‘gatekeeper’. How can managers identify and tackle stress if they aren’t exposed to it? For managers this means they need to understand the behaviours they should display to their employees in ways to minimise stress[3]. However despite evidence demonstrating that line managers are one of the most important influencers in engagement and stress; recent research conducted by the CIPD has found that only 43% of respondents believed that line managers were brought into the importance of wellbeing[4].

Renwick[1] argues that HR managers can be seen to both engage and enhance employee wellbeing at work, whilst at the same time acting against it. His study showed that there were advantages to employee wellbeing through the devolution of HR to line managers and adoption of a strategic approach. But at the same time there are also potential costs, and if these aren’t addressed commitment in the organisation cannot be secured. Gagne[5] further argues that if commitment was nothing more than a state of mind that only happens through a positive exchange of relationship, it contributes nothing but the exchange of theories in motivation.

Positive change starts with the recognition of the need for change and a clear vision of its outcome, a healthy organisation cannot be made with immediate developments. Grawitch, Gottschalk and Munz[6] argues that the best way to improve the wellbeing of staff is to implement planned programs of health initiatives. However Donaldson-Feilder and Lewis[2]  argues that management development is not just about choosing a model and running a training event. Applying and sustaining new behaviour into the workplace is hard and needs a lot of support, the context in which manager’s work in particular will have a major impact on how they behave. But that is not to say that upward feedback and workshop inputs won’t have a positive outcome in employees.

Wellbeing initiatives are often standalone isolated from everyday business, it needs to be integrated into the organisation, embedded in the culture, leadership and people management. The following video’s by the CIPD[7] and Virgin[8] highlights the need to grow the health and wellbeing agenda:



The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)[9] has published a health guidance addressed to managers and employers on how to develop a positive and health aware culture. The report acknowledged the impact corporate culture has on employee health and recognises the value of giving employees control and flexibility in how they work. According to the report line managers need to be given training to improve their awareness of health and wellbeing issues.  HSE[10]  has also established management standards (shown below) which indicate high levels of health, well-being and organizational performance.



A recent study into the NHS found that there were high levels of stress and burnout in staff due to 5 themes. Lack of support and advocacy from managers; rise of aggression, verbal abuse and incivility (indirect effect from lack of support); interconnectivity and social support providing a buffering effect; occupational health support seen as punishment (belief that extra support meant staff were incompetent) and inadequate support in general. The HCAs and nurses highlighted that despite the frontline nature of their role, which meant increased levels of support, they received the least. This lack of support from line managers to staff as a consequence led to a lack of emotional wellbeing[12].

As such line managers should ensure that stress is identified early; take an active role in absence management; maintain regular contact with the concerned employee and provide support options to maximise the opportunity for employees to return to work and be actively productive in a reasonable amount of time[11]. The following document showcases some of the competencies needed by line managers to prevent and reduce stress at work[3] .

Line manager competency – preventing and reducing stress at work



[1] Renwick, D. (2003). HR managers: Guardians of employee wellbeing? Personnel Review, 32(3), 341 – 359.

[2] Donaldson-Feilder, E., & Lewis, R. (2016). Taking the lead on mental health: the role of leaders and line managers. Occupational Health & Wellbeing, 68(7), 16 – 17.

[3] Donaldson‐Feilder, E., Yarker, J., & Lewis, R. (2008). Line management competence: the key to preventing and reducing stress at. Strategic HR Review, 7(2), 11 – 16.

[4] Lewis, R., & Donaldson-Feilder, E. (2017, March 22). New tools to help you develop managers to support employee well-being and engagement. Retrieved from CIPD Community:

[5] Gagne, M. (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] GRAWITCH, M., GOTTSCHALK, M., & MUNZ, D. (2006). The path to a healthy workplace: A critical review linking healthy workplace practices, employee well-being, and organizational improvements. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 58(3), 129 – 147.

[7] CIPD. (2016, January 20). CIPD – Growing the Health and Well-being Agenda. Retrieved from YouTube:

[8] Virgin. (2015, April 29). Virgin Disruptors: Your Workplace Wellbeing, At What Cost? Highlights. Retrieved from Youtube:

[9] Anonymous. (2015, August). Management style linked to employee wellbeing. Occupational Health, 67(8), 5.

[10] HSE. (2017). What are the Management Standards. Retrieved from Health and Safety Executive:

[11] Paton, N. (2016). Line manager is key to a return to work after sickness absence. Occupational Health & Wellbeing, 68(4), 4.

[12] George, M. S. (2016). Stress in NHS staff triggers defensive inward-focussing and an associated loss of connection with colleagues: this is reversed by Schwartz Rounds. Journal of Compassionate Health Care, 3(1).


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