A direct manager can impact your mental health—positively or negatively

Man with head in one hand while the other holds a cellphone to his ear

This article was originally published by The Globe and Mail on July 3, 2019, and is written by Dr. Bill Howatt of The Conference Board of Canada.

If your first thought as you prepare for another day of work is not positive, is it because you don’t enjoy working with or don’t trust your direct manager? Perhaps it’s not uncommon for you to feel unwell just thinking about going to work, as the thought of dealing with your direct manager once again upsets your stomach.

A direct manager can have a positive or negative influence on an employee’s resiliency and mental health. Interacting with a direct manager who’s controlling and negative can lead to stress, but dealing with one who is positive, encouraging and supportive can be good for employees’ mental health.

This micro skill exercise focuses on how our relationship with our direct manager—one of the most important we have in the workplace—can be influenced by our actions.

Awareness

Since most of us spend half of our total waking hours at work, we should be mindful of how experiences with a direct manager may be impacting our mental health, whether positively or negatively. These experiences accumulate and can impact our thinking, feeling and behaviour.

If you’re concerned about your relationship with your direct manager, you may use the direct manager experience quick screen listed below to objectively self-evaluate it. Using a scale of one (not true) to five (very true), rate each statement on your experience over the past few months. The closer your total score is to 30, the more likely you have a positive, healthy and safe relationship with your direct manager.

  1. I trust my direct manager.
  2. I feel safe interacting with my direct manager.
  3. I know my direct manager appreciates my work.
  4. I believe my direct manager respects my abilities.
  5. My direct manager is an excellent coach and teacher.
  6. I find my direct manager’s feedback helpful.

Now write out three points that best describe how you feel about your direct manager.

Accountibility

The way to maintain or improve a relationship with a direct manager is to be mindful not only of their behaviour, but also of your own.

  • Is there anything you’re doing that may be frustrating your direct manager?
  • Are you being polite, respectful and professional?

It takes two willing people to develop a healthy and positive relationship. If there are things you know are a problem or distraction, take ownership of what you can control and stop any behaviours that you believe are creating strain.

Action

You don’t have to accept that your relationship with your direct manager is not where you want it to be; you can act to improve it. Stop avoiding the problem and look for an opportunity to talk about your concerns.

  • Be clear on your specific concerns. Document the concerns you have and why you’re feeling the way you are. If you’re concerned about bullying or your psychological safety, engage human resources or another leader for support. If your concern is management style and not safety, write out your experiences that explain why you’re thinking and feeling the way you are about your direct manager. Be specific; state facts only.
  • Engage your direct manager and self-advocate. Ask to speak to your manager. Self-advocate by making a stand for what you believe in a way that’s not disrespectful or aggressive. The goal is to express your concerns by sharing information that may influence a change in behaviour. Set the stage with a pre-frame statement: “I have some concerns. Our working relationship is not as good as I would like it. I wonder if you would be open to listen and allow me to share my concerns. I only want to learn how to feel more comfortable working with you.”
  • Move forward or escalate. How your direct manager reacts to your self-advocating will determine what they will do, as well as what you may learn you could do to improve the relationship. If your direct manager responds negatively and gets upset, you need to escalate your concerns to another manager or to human resources. A manager who is not open to listening to their employees’ concerns likely doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to do so. Gallup polls suggest that 75 per cent of the reasons people quit a job is because of their direct manager. To move forward with your direct manager, it’s critical you know what you expect, such as professionalism and a psychologically safe workplace. What’s not optimal is staying in a workplace where you feel unwell because of a working relationship with your direct manager that’s painful and hurtful. Over time, this can put your mental health at risk.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

Dr. Bill Howatt

Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity

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