Supporting line managers during challenging times

Employers are waking up to growing workplace mental health issues since the pandemic, with greater commitment to initiatives and practices to address them. But will they be able to continue that commitment as the cost of doing business spirals? And how can they best support the line managers who are often charged with managing these issues in the workplace?

Workplace mental health issues are estimated to cost UK employers £56 billion a year[1] in sickness absences, employee turnover, and presenteeism (when employees are working when ill, or are routinely working beyond their contracted hours). Recent research from the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) at Warwick Business School has found that employers are, perhaps belatedly, engaging in a range of initiatives to support staff. This is encouraging, given that levels of mental health-related sickness absence and presenteeism, having declined at the height of the pandemic, are both now creeping back up[2]. The proportion of firms experiencing mental health-related absence and reporting that it impacts on their business in some way has, in 2022, regained pre-pandemic levels and stands at around 57 per cent.

The ERC’s study is based on data from three consecutive years of employer surveys, with the first in 2020 taking place before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the latest data, 37% of employers reported having a budget for mental health activities in 2022, up from 31% in 2020. 43% of firms surveyed in 2022 said they have employee mental health champions, up from 29% in 2020. This progress is sorely needed, as the number of workers needing support with mental health issues is on the rise too[3] and, with it, the likely impact of poor mental health on business performance.

In addition to this, the ERC’s latest report[4] indicates that line managers, who are often relied upon by employers to deliver their mental health-related initiatives, can themselves suffer emotional impacts from managing mental health issues in others, including stress, burnout and alienation. Prior research has highlighted the ‘emotion-draining’ nature of line management[5]. Despite being required to engage in emotionally challenging tasks, managers are often expected to be ‘non-emotional human beings, expected to ‘take’ emotional expression from others, but display little themselves’[6]. This can result in them keeping their feelings private. Yet line managers themselves are rarely trained in dealing with the emotions that accompany their roles and, as a consequence, their jobs can leave them ‘exhausted or unwell’[7]. To address this, employers need to ensure that they are supporting line managers, by putting in place the right firm-level policies and procedures. This may include training, counselling and peer-support.

Going forward, employers face the challenge of offering employees and managers the support they need while facing up to the spiralling cost of doing business and other difficulties over the coming months. As their attention starts to shift towards the looming economic crisis, it is to be hoped that they will continue to commit to giving staff the mental health support they need.


Maria Wishart, ERC

Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the

Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group


[1] Hampson E and Jacob A. (2020) Mental health and employers: refreshing the case for investment. Deloitte.  [2] 33% of firms reported some level of mental health-related sickness absence prior to the pandemic. This declined to 26% in 2021, but rose to 30% in 2022. In 2021, presenteeism was reported by around 20 per cent of firms compared to over 34 per cent in 2020. In 2022, it is back up at more than 26 per cent. (ERC, 2022) [3] WHO data, for example, shows the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25 per cent increase in anxiety and depression. [4] ERC (2022) Line managers: The emotional labour of managing workplace mental health issues [5] Richards J, Sang K, Marks A, et al. (2019) “I’ve found it extremely draining”. Personnel Review 48: 1903-1923 [6] Rivers E. (2019) Navigating emotion in HR work: caring for ourselves? Personnel Review 48: 1565-1579. [7] O’Brien E and Linehan C. (2018) The last taboo? surfacing and supporting Emotional Labour in HR work. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 29: 683-709.