It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the most significant factor impacting people’s happiness, engagement and performance at work is their manager. However well paid the role, however interesting the projects, if a manager’s people skills are lacking, his or her employees are far more likely to feel disengaged and demotivated, stressed, and burned out.

Given how vital managers are in ensuring engagement and promoting performance, you’d think that effective training in people management would be the top priority in any business’ training budget. Strangely, however, the reality is different.

Managing People Is a Whole New Ballgame

Managers play a vital role in employee well-being and mental health and, therefore, in overall business performance. With the right skills, tools and knowledge, managers can reduce stress and burnout, sick leave, and turnover. They can encourage a happy, supported workforce that has clearly defined job roles, adequate workloads, flexibility and autonomy, and someone to turn to for support.

Unfortunately, these “soft” people skills don’t necessarily come naturally, and many managers were promoted into that role because they were good at their jobs rather than because they had leadership potential. Managing people requires a new skill set involving listening, communicating, and fostering trust and respect — skills that, in most cases, must be learned and practiced.

Businesses must recognize that people management is a vital component of leadership that they must invest in, teach, monitor and value alongside other business skills and performance indicators. People make or break a business, and managers make or break people.

The Impact of Mental Health and Well-being at Work

Mental health is linked to employee engagement and performance, and taking care of employees, making them a priority, supporting their career development and promoting their happiness is the healthiest thing a growing business can do. After all, companies with engaged employees beat their competition time and again; Gallup research shows that engaged workforces perform better than their counterparts in all manner of key operational areas, from employee productivity and retention to workplace safety and profitability.

Even with the strong business case for promoting mental well-being in the workplace, not enough businesses are succeeding in doing so. The U.K.’s Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes reports, “At any one time, one in five working people will be suffering from a mental health difficulty.” The Centre estimates that poor mental health costs U.K. employers approximately £1,300 ($1,700) per employee.

Breaking the Workforce

The most common workplace triggers for employee burnout or mental health issues:

Excessive workload over a sustained period of time: not just long hours in a short burst for a key project or presentation (where there’s an end in sight) but a consistently high workload that continues or escalates over time.

Lack of quality relationships: poor rapport with manager, lack of friends at work to confide in or isolation in their personal life.

Not feeling safe or supported: lack of trust in manager or colleagues, feeling they may be compromised or unfairly treated, or not feeling acknowledged.

Uncertainty and lack of direction: not knowing their expectations, not understanding what their role entails, not knowing what doing a good job looks like, not understanding reporting lines or not knowing how their manager is likely to react.

Lack of control or flexibility: lack of influence over how and when they work and which assignments they work on and no or limited ability to influence decisions.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that this list relates almost entirely to the relationship and communication an employee has with his or her manager.

Making the Workforce

Once managers understand the vital role they play, how can they contribute meaningfully to employee well-being?

As with many things in life, prevention is better than cure. Successful people managers proactively adopt the following skills and approaches to ensure their team always feels trusted, listened to, valued and supported:


  • Seeking to understand rather than reply.
  • Asking open questions and showing genuine interest.
  • Sticking up for team members.
  • Building trust.
  • Encouraging collaboration.

Clearly Communicating Job Roles and Expectations

  • Ensuring the team knows what’s expected of them and that they have what they need to do their work.
  • Ensuring that employees are in roles that suit them and work to their strengths.
  • Making sure employees understand how their work impacts the organization at large.

Giving people control over how they manage their time: Most people welcome flexibility in their working hours or location, so allowing different start times or remote work can help managers earn their employees’ trust.

Monitoring Workloads

  • If an employee’s workload is becoming unmanageable, discussing what can change.
  • Keeping an eye on work hours and encouraging employees to take breaks and holidays and to leave the office at a good time.
  • Leading by example by not staying too late or sending emails after hours.

Making decisions promptly, so that employees aren’t left dangling or guessing, leading to uncertainty and lack of direction.

Invest in Management Training

Managers must understand the skills they need to create an environment where their employees can feel and perform at their best. As a learning leader, it’s crucial that you don’t expect them to do it naturally or unaided. Support managers with the training and guidance they need to develop the nuanced skill set required for managing people, not just processes.

When you invest in leadership training, make sure it covers mental well-being and people management skills. Workplace well-being has caught on as a concept, but companies must integrate it into their business strategy rather than making a few token gestures. Mental health should be an integral part of your leadership development programs, not an afterthought.

This integrated approach will ensure your managers are equipped to meaningfully communicate with, support and engage your valuable people — making them, not breaking them.