Today, employers are increasingly faced with employees who are absent due to mental reasons. This includes conditions such as depression, as well as stress-related causes for absenteeism, like burnout and anxiety disorders. The overall picture of cause and solution is complex. However, research is increasingly indicating a crucial role for managers. This pertains to both preventing absenteeism and managing the consequences of absences, as well as the follow-up for absentees and their return to work.
Unfortunately, prevention and reintegration of long-term sick individuals usually aren’t explicit tasks or knowledge areas for the average manager. It's high time to explore how managers can be empowered in prevention. What are their needs, barriers they face, and what do they see as potential aids? Researchers Eva Geluk and Kathleen Vangronsvelt from Antwerp Management School joined forces with Bpost and B-Tonic, a subsidiary of Baloise. The ultimate goal of the three-year research collaboration, Wellbeing Works, is to create knowledge and evidence-based solutions for organizations and their stakeholders.
Through a series of blogs, we will keep you informed about our findings and provide you with practical and relevant insights.
Mental Well-being at Work: The Mental Health Continuum and the Role of the Manager.
Our jobs are often mentally demanding, both in practical and psychosocial aspects. Therefore, it's no surprise that mental health is becoming increasingly vital for employees' well-being and productivity. But what do we mean when we talk about mental health?
A useful framework is the "Mental Health Continuum." This model helps us view mental health as a fluctuating phenomenon, as the figure below illustrates. We all find ourselves at different points on this continuum at times (Kelloway, Dimoff, & Gilbert, 2023).
Acknowledging the dynamic nature of mental health can be a game-changer for organizations committed to prevention and promoting a supportive work environment. Below, we delve deeper into the role managers can play and how diverse the health experiences of both employees and managers can be.
To illustrate this diversity, we spoke with 56 managers over the past months about their experiences with mental health prevention at work.
What stood out was that few managers in our research referred to the green zone, namely proactive prevention. This involves promoting mental fitness. Yet, many issues can be prevented by timely intervention, such as job design, job fit, autonomy, maintaining a good balance between energy drains and energy boosters, and fostering a psychologically safe culture.
The discussions revealed that managers spend most of their time and energy in the white zone - when problems already exist. This zone indicates mental struggles requiring timely intervention. In this phase, managers primarily initiate conversations. Sometimes they refer individuals to social assistants, or they might contact external services. If we want to address issues at an earlier stage, managers need stronger support. This could involve offering accessible resources and support mechanisms.
5 main concerns of managers Below, we summarize the five main concerns of managers.
- "What does 'prevention' mean?" Managers often perceive prevention as something addressed only when problems arise. While many are willing to engage in conversations, there's sometimes a lack of knowledge about preventive measures like increasing resources and reducing inhibiting work demands.
- "I can't do it alone" Managers experience varying degrees of support, both from the organization and their own superiors. There's a need for improved collaboration among supportive roles and more consistent support from their own superiors.
- "Lack of a clear framework" Organizational policies and vision play a crucial role. Managers emphasize the need for better implementation of existing initiatives, clear priorities, and informed choices, which could directly alleviate work pressure.
- "Never enough time" Time is identified as a significant barrier. There's a need for more time for discussions, both informal and formal. Time for follow-ups, and time to properly onboard, guide, and support people in their jobs.
- "I don't have the full picture" There's a lack of knowledge about the actual causes of absenteeism, especially concerning mental health reasons. It's challenging to distinguish whether absences are due to personal or work-related issues.
3 keywords for mental health prevention at work
We conclude with the three keywords for mental health prevention at work: Awareness, Training, and Policy.
- Awareness. Creating awareness about the continuum of mental health is the foundation for prevention. When employees and leaders understand the spectrum of mental health experiences, it reduces stigma, encourages open dialogue, and fosters a culture of empathy.
- Training. By investing in training and educational programs, employees and managers gain the tools to recognize signs of stress earlier. This enables them to take preventive measures and create a supportive environment for their colleagues.
- Policy. Organizations committed to mental health prevention integrate policies that prioritize employee well-being. This includes clear protocols for handling mental health issues, creating a psychologically safe environment, and avenues to seek help without fear of judgment.
Kelloway, E. K., Dimoff, J. K., & Gilbert, S. (2023). Mental Health in the Workplace. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 10(1), 363-387. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-120920-050527
Organizations that focus on a sustainable well-being policy ensure that mental well-being plays a central and strategic role. This is incorporated into their ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) social pillar. It is necessary to work top-down, with specific attention to providing structural support to managers. This includes clear guidelines for handling mental health issues, promoting a psychologically safe environment, and offering easily accessible resources without fear of stigmatization.
The quest for an effective well-being policy is not a simple task. Within a large company like bpost, with numerous diverse profiles, this remains challenging. An academic and practical foundation on how to better shape the well-being policy offers us a lot of added value and confidence. Confidence to better define and support the role of the manager within that policy, and particularly confidence to further develop the primary preventive role they can have.