Are Managers Turning into Counsellors?

14 June 2021by Elaina Smith0
12 things you can do to support mental health in the workplace (and help managers become managers again)

Mental health is a sensitive topic.  For the one in four of us, who will face a mental ill health in our lifetime, finding the right resources and support is a key step to our recovery.

In this blog we argue that managers are not the best people to provide this support and could, with the best intentions, actually make matters worse, both for the individual concerned and for themselves.  What’s needed is a clarification of management boundaries, organisations to step up to their responsibilities to help avoid work-related stress and practical actions that can be taken to ensure that everyone is supported and empowered to thrive.

In here you’ll find 12 things that companies can do to support mental health in the workplace and help managers become managers again…

With a Covid related mental ill health ‘tsunami’ predicted by the World Health Organisation, what impact can this have on our mangers and team leaders?  Well, we can probably answer that question…

Over the last 3 years, we’ve been working with hundreds of managers across the UK and US and one of their greatest challenges is supporting team members with mental ill health.

Team managers are often one of the first people to notice if a colleague is struggling.  And the special bond between manager and team member, can result in them being the first person a team member may go to for help.   An ‘invitation’ which managers may readily accept initially, only to find themselves feeling overwhelmed, ill-prepared and out of their depth, later down the line.
“When it comes to mental health issues, managers feel nervous, ill prepared and out of their depth”
  • One in four of us is likely to face a mental health crisis in any given year
  • The economic cost of mental health is estimated at £74-99 billion per year
  • Last year, 45% of sick leave was stress-related
  • For every £1 invested in employee assistance programmes, the business return ranges from £1.50 to £9
And who can blame them?

Supporting a person through a mental health issue is highly specialized work and requires in-depth training (Counsellors train for 3-5 years and are continually supervised and supported).  Managers are finding themselves adopting this role, often with little or no guidance, training, or support…

Nina’s story

“A lady in my team is severely depressed.  She told me that she was desperate, and I was the only person that she trusted. I really wanted to help, but over a period of several months, I realized that it was affecting my own mental health. When she started calling me in the middle of the night, I really didn’t know what to do, I began to feel scared and I realised I was out of my depth…”

Ben’s story

“One of my team members is underperforming and has been for a while.  Normally, I would follow the usual procedures, but this person suffers from anxiety and is prone to panic attacks, so I’m unsure about how to handle it – I’m nervous about the impact that a performance conversation might have on them.  I know I’m avoiding it, and other team members are getting frustrated about the situation – I feel the pressure is on my shoulders to resolve it…”

Mahmood’s story

“I need to re-organise some of our team processes, which means some individuals are doing tasks that they haven’t done before.  Whilst training has been arranged, two team members have told me that if they must do these tasks, they’ll go on long-term sick citing pressure of work affecting their mental health.  I feel that I’m being held to ransom and I don’t know how to handle it”

Katia’s story

“Last week, one of my senior team members collapsed in the office and was taken away by ambulance, the pressure of work has just been so huge recently, it just got too much for him…  I now feel guilty and devastated that I didn’t spot it earlier and I feel responsible for inflicting this on him”

What can be done at the organisational level?

These kinds of stories are just the tip of the iceberg.  The difficulties faced by managers, have often come about due to a combination of an exaggerated personal responsibility, a desire to ‘Rescue’ and/or organisational blind spots and failures

The question is, what can be done to appropriately support both the individual in crisis and the manager who is supporting them?

Let’s start by looking at what can be done at the organisational level to help prevent work related mental ill health and provide suitable support for people with other mental health conditions…

  1. Have open conversations about mental health and wellbeing – assume that anyone in the company could find themselves facing a mental health crisis at some point, and be clear about what individuals can expect from the company to support them
  2. Encourage everyone to take ownership for their own mental wellbeing and create a personal W.A.P – ‘Wellness Action Plan’ (you can find a template at ). This helps individuals be proactive around their mental wellbeing, alert to any ‘warning signs’ and have pre-prepared coping strategies in place which they can activate if/when needed
  3. Honour and protect time to talk – how often do 1:1s, coaching sessions, appraisals and team meetings get cancelled because of high workload? This is false economy because these types of activity (when executed well) are perfect for enhancing wellbeing and de-escalating stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation and low self-worth. They are considered to be ‘best practice’ activities for a reason
  4. Adopt a ‘Transformational’, coaching style of leadership – coaching helps people to think and problem solve for themselves and helps them feel empowered, capable, resourceful and respected
  5. Stop creating impossible goals, deadlines and under-resourcing. Goals which are too big, too many or too difficult are the surest way to activate unnecessary stress and trigger mental ill health – particularly at senior leadership level. Instead, have a policy of realistic and attainable goals, which stretch people without breaking them and leading to burnout
  6. Consider how to make challenge and stretch and repetition and transaction, meaningful to the individual/team/company. It’s the meaning-making that adds purpose and motivation to a task.  There is meaning in anything and everything if you want to find it
Supporting our managers

So now onto our managers– how can we support them to support others safely and appropriately? Try these:

1. Clarify the manager’s role and where the boundary sits between being a manager and being a counsellor. Help managers to see that well intentioned behaviours such as being ‘helpful’ and/or trying to ‘rescue’ the person can actually mean that they get in the way of that person accessing really effective professional support. Let’s help managers to see that the best role they can play is that of ‘empathetic sign-posters’ rather than ‘counsellor or therapist’

2. If a manager is dealing with a mental health issue on the team, provide ongoing supervision to shadow them as they navigate through any challenging moments. Make time for the manager to have their own 1:1 to check out how they’re feeling about the situation – help them have a clear plan of action and provide coaching support as required. They should feel that the whole company is behind them

3. Ensure managers are skilled in guiding colleagues towards appropriate support services which can be helpful. Train managers in how to suggest a person goes to their doctor or accesses an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Provide them with a list of useful local support services which they can share with team members as required e.g. Debt Counselling Services, Mental Health Information Lines, Drug and Alcohol help lines etc.

4. Provide clarity to managers around what temporary ‘reasonable adjustments’ can be made to support a person through difficult moment and where the boundary ends and the person may need to have a more formal process in place e.g. a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) or be guided through the Capability process – this is difficult terrain for any manager and they need to be well supported

5. Train managers in how to spot the early warning signs of mental ill health in their teams and develop strategies for broaching the subject with a well-positioned enquiry. Mangers often need support to have these challenging conversations confidently, sensitively, empathetically and effectively

6. Ensure managers are clear about levels of confidentiality and rules regarding data protection.  It’s important that people are reassured that their sensitive information will be shared with as few people as possible


Our managers should not be mental health counsellors and therapists. They are ill equipped for this role and could quite easily make matters worse rather than better. People with mental ill health are best served with appropriate resources and/or specialist support.
Organisations may contribute to mental health issues by being unrealistic in terms of goals, deadlines, expectations and/or insufficient resources to get the job done.
Mental health issues are common, but with sensitive management, clear boundaries, organizational policies and realistic expectations, companies can demonstrate their commitment to employee wellness and cultivate a positive, healthy and thriving culture

What’s the one thing that you’ll take from this blog today?

Author: Elaina Smith, Leadership Facilitator, Coach and Mental Health First Aider

Further resources:

For more information about Mental Health courses in your area, check out Mental Health First Aid England at they also have a comprehensive Line Managers Resource Pack which you can download for free

For Wellness Action Plan Templates (W.A.P.) go to


MHFA England

If you would like more information on how to develop resilient, capable and confident leaders, contact us at

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