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Why line managers do not need to be miracle workers to support staff wellbeing

Published: 29/06/2022

More than ever is expected of line managers today. However, they do not need to be miracle workers or expert psychologists to support workplace wellbeing. They just need to be able to communicate the benefits of a behaviour change programme to their staff, writes, Judy Parfitt, Chief People Officer, Vitality.

It’s amazing how the role of the ‘line manager’ has evolved and adapted over the years, as technology has evolved and in line with rapid social progress.

During the pandemic, however, it survived a further step-change as the UK and wider world adapted to a whole host of never-seen-before challenges.

“It is no longer enough for line managers simply to be a reactive middleperson who passes down orders and ensures these are followed”

- Judy Parfitt, Chief People Officer, Vitality

Homeworking and hybrid working have since become established norms. And, having had time during lockdown to consider what they really want from their careers, many employees have become disengaged with their company’s objectives and values as a result.   

Retention now key

A recent survey by Sodexo Engage showed that 32% of UK workers were thinking of handing in their resignation this year 1. But few businesses can afford such turnover levels.

Research has traditionally demonstrated that, as a broad rule of thumb, it can cost a year’s salary to replace an employee, taking into account factors such as advertising, recruitment fees, training and a drop-off in productivity as a newcomer finds their feet.

Some argue that the indirect costs are even greater as the high turnover rates themselves impact on company culture and engagement levels, thus creating a vicious circle. So, a new emphasis on retention to combat this ‘Great Resignation’ is demanding different skillsets from those in middle-management positions.

It is no longer enough for line managers simply to be a reactive middleperson who passes down orders and ensures these are followed. They need to be proactive motivators who make their team members feel wanted and induce optimum performance from them, wholeheartedly supporting their mental and physical wellbeing.

The engagement challenge

Even if employees don’t leave, those with low engagement levels won’t perform to their maximum. Indeed, our last Britain’s Healthiest Workplace study found that the UK economy loses 38 days per employee per year through low productivity 2.

Furthermore, in the era of hybrid working this engagement challenge assumes a whole new layer of complexity.

Do, for example, employees working from home have the right hardware and software to facilitate the most effective communication? Is enough being done to show appreciation for their efforts or to ask for their feedback, or to help with promoting health and wellbeing?

Management style has long been highlighted by research as a major cause of stress in the workplace, and the consequences of poor management can be all-the-more damaging and sinister if they are inconspicuous and allowed to fester. Out of sight should never mean out of mind.

Emotional intelligence

The key quality needed by the modern-day line manager is ‘emotional intelligence’, which refers to the ability to recognise, control and evaluate the emotions of others and to use this awareness to motivate them.

Identifying those individuals with the highest levels of emotional intelligence isn’t necessarily as straightforward as other forms of evaluation, as the quality can’t be captured via psychometric tests. But those who exhibit an easy manner, an ability to control their own emotions and a natural empathy towards others are more than likely to be amongst them.

Even if managers appear lacking in this, a little training can go a long way. This is particularly the case with supporting health and wellbeing, where communicating some basic information and options can have a spectacular effect in triggering behavioural change.

Vitality’s own research has shown that employees who are more engaged with health and wellbeing experience 28% fewer sickness episodes and are 150% more likely to report job satisfaction 3. Furthermore, the reduction in absenteeism is particularly marked with older employees. Our member data shows that highly physically active members aged 60 and over are 51% less likely to be hospitalised each year 4.

Incentives work

One of the most powerful ways of instigating behavioural change is by offering incentives and rewards. Importantly, the types of incentives that Vitality offers are just as effective for those working from home as they are for office-based staff. And they lead to behavioural change that is sustainable.

For example, we’ve been working with global healthcare firm Novo Nordisk for over 10 years. On average, over 50% of its employees were earning activity points between 2015 and 2020, while 30% were highly engaged. This compared to an average industry engagement for digital health programmes of less than 10% .

All this can have huge implications for the bottom line. Novo Nordisk employees have benefited from 11 additional days of productive time per year due to positive changes to their lifestyle – creating a total saving of £1,300 per employee per year. 

So, line managers don’t have to be psychologists or experts in behavioural economics to support the health and wellbeing of staff. They just need the communication stills need to communicate the available benefits of a wellbeing programme that incentivises and rewards positive lifestyle choices.
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Sodexo Engage, January 2022
Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, 2019
Vitality People Study, 2018
A Bayesian Network was used for causal inference and the expected impact of changes in lifestyle behaviours estimated using do-calculus. Models were built on Vitality Life and Health customer data between 2016 and 2020.