This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
Workplace stress can have a negative impact on employees' health, with clear links among stress, coping skills and mental illness, which in Canada continues to be a major concern and threat to workforce health and productivity.
While interaction with their manager can drive employees' stress, the employee-manager relationship has been found to be an important factor in facilitating employees' psychological safety and health.
Employees' mental health can be positively influenced by managers whose effectiveness can be determined by how well they manage priorities, resources, pressures to achieve defined targets and people's needs.
What a manager says matters, because words matter. Managers who are aware of this can use their words to influence employees' coping skills.
Managers who have been trained in supporting employees to develop their coping skills through their conversations and interactions can positively impact employees' mental health, lower presenteeism and absenteeism, and increase engagement and productivity.
The following case study illustrates how a manager can support employees to cope better.
Sam is a worrier who has been with the same employer for 12 years. One stressor for Sam is delays in getting approval from his manager that his work is acceptable. With any delay in feedback he assumes the worst and worries. This line of thinking is not good for his mental health.
Jane, Sam's manager for the past five years, is aware that Sam can be anxious. She recognized early in her work with Sam that her approval is important to him. She and Sam have a positive relationship.
It was not until Jane took foundation training in mental health that she had the awareness and tools for supporting employees with mental health issues. This influenced her to take additional management training that provides managers with a series of coping skills that can help employees better manage their stress.
Without training, it's difficult for managers like Jane to understand how their role can positively impact prevention, early detection and support of employees' mental health.
Jane's coping skills training reinforced how a manager's words can impact employees' psychological safety as defined by the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.
Jane identified the benefits of helping Sam develop his locus of control – the extent to which people believe they have power over events in their lives. She observed that Sam operates from an external locus of control, meaning that he puts a heavy weight on external feedback – in his case, approval. He's highly dependent on others to give him approval, so he looks forward to feedback from Jane as confirmation that he's doing a good job.
Jane is committed to giving feedback but is determined that if Sam could learn to work more from an internal locus of control (belief that he can influence events and their outcomes), he would be able to more intrinsically acknowledge his work and be less dependent on the environment. Basically, she wants to help Sam learn that what he thinks matters and that he can choose to accept or reject information from the environment.
Jane decided to continue to focus on this theme until she determines that Sam is operating with confidence and appears to be less anxious or worried about failing.
Jane assigned Sam the task and responsibility to come to her at least once every two weeks to report the one thing he was most proud of and that had the biggest impact in his mind and why. She knew she would not change her style and approach with Sam and would continue to be supportive, but wanted him to start to look inward.
This micro skill is but one example of how managers can influence many coping skills, such as emotional intelligence, resiliency and grit. Through words and intentions, managers can shape their conversations to help employees develop better problem-solving and decision-making skills. This is one proactive action that can support employees' mental health, engagement and productivity.
Success is dependent on managers with empathy and compassion to remove stigma and judgment and to accept the importance and impact of the manager-employee relationship and the words they use.
Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell, Toronto.