Supervisor – be proactive

You can best promote mental health by being proactive. Identify and assess workload and stressors, and impact them. Take into account your employees’ individual situations and improve your skills in addressing issues.

Gain a more in-depth understanding of the psychosocial risk factors of work and work stress

As a supervisor, you represent the employer, and the employer’s responsibility is to evaluate the risks and stressors in the work and to take care of minimising their impact on your employee’s health. Your role is to understand what these stressors and risks mean in daily work and what can be done about them. 

In the course of daily work, you develop a more detailed and up-to-date picture of the stress level caused by the work and your employees’ situation than formal surveys could ever reveal. This makes it possible for you to be proactive. Find out about the psychosocial stressors present at your workplace and discuss what they mean with your employees. Keep up to speed on your employees’ work and how they are performing. If something does not seem to be going smoothly, start looking for a solution together with your employees with a low threshold.

This table shows you what you should pay attention to and what psychosocial stressors may be present at your workplace.

Job content Lack of variety or short work cycles,
fragmented or meaningless work, under use of skills,
high uncertainty, continuous exposure to people through work
Workload and work pace Work overload or under load, machine pacing,
high levels of time pressure, continually subject to deadlines
Work schedule Shift working, night shift, inflexible work schedules,
unpredictable hours, long or unsociable hours
Control Low participation in decision making,
lack of control over workload, pacing, shift working etc.
Environment and equipment Inadequate equipment availability, suitability
or maintenance; poor environmental conditions
such as lack of space, poor lighting, excessive noise
Organisational culture and function Poor communication, low levels of support for
problem solving and personal development,
lack of definition of, or agreement on, organisational objectives
Interpersonal relationships at work Social or physical isolation, poor relationships
with superiors or co-workers, interpersonal conflict,
lack of social support
Role in organisation Role ambiguity, role conflict and responsibility for people
Career development
Career stagnation and uncertainty,
under promotion or over promotion, poor pay,
job insecurity, low social value of work
Home-work interface Conflicting demands of work and home,
low support at home, dual career problems

Look at the big picture

Do not take an overly simplistic view of stress; psychosocial stress is caused by a number of other things besides the amount of work, time and profit pressure. Build an understanding of what about the work causes stress, when stress occurs and what it is connected to. For this, occupational health services can provide you with advice and support as required.

It can be difficult to put a definite label on a single stressor. It is much more important for you to understand what stressors are present at your workplace, where and when they occur, what they are connected to and what you can do about them. Discuss the workload, stressors and the thoughts or concerns related to them together with your employees. This way you can help alleviate unjustified concerns and fears and find appropriate solutions for justified concerns.

Also note that the physical stressors, hazards or accident risks involved in the work may be a source of psychosocial stress as well. Your employees may be concerned or fear they will be exposed to chemicals, unsafe operations or difficult customer situations or otherwise feel unsafe. Help your employees recognise and voice these concerns and show that you understand.

Also identify and take into account resources

When evaluating the stressors at your workplace, you can see which ones are not harmful and which ones are well under control. At the same time, you also discover the resources at your workplace, such as the perceived meaningfulness of work, sense of control and achievement and the experience of the work community’s support. Also remember that many stressors, if present in suitable amounts, can be resources. For example, some employees may find a certain work pace and haste beneficial for them.

Think about whether you take your workplace’s resources for granted or whether you are aware and proud of them. Also be sure to discuss what works well and where you have succeeded. This helps you you improve your own satisfaction with your work and your workplace. That, too, is everyday mental health promotion.

Know your employees

Work causes stress to your employees, and stress is a normal part of people’s life, regardless of their age. Stress in itself is not dangerous; its purpose is to momentarily raise the performance level and help achieve goals. However, too much stress is harmful for your employees, particularly if it persists and your employees do not get the chance to recover from it. Prolonged stress or strong stress peaks can exacerbate your employees’ psychological symptoms and increase the risk of mental disorders.

Each of your employees experiences and copes with the stress they face in their own individual way. Some of them show an immediate visible reaction to stress while others will not start to show symptoms of stress in their behaviour until later. Some reduce stress by discussing it and its causes, while others want to deal with stress by focussing on completing their tasks. The same applies to stress outside of work. Some find it easier to concentrate on work when their closest colleagues know their situation, while others make a point of not showing the private side of their life at the workplace.

It is important that you know your employees and their individual ways of dealing with stress. So keep up to speed on their work situation. Allocate time for regular discussions with your employees. Sometimes you can just catch up and sometimes you can discuss a specific task or goal. That allows you to get to know your employees, keep up to date on their work situations and hear what they need and want from you.

When showing an interest in and talking about the employees’ lives is a normal thing at your workplace, you all make it easier for everyone to talk about successes and problems alike.

Develop mental health first aid skills

Mental health issues, especially momentary symptoms, are very common. That is why you will inevitably come across them in your work as a supervisor. Facing and handling difficult thoughts and feelings is part of supervisory work.

You may find it hard to recognise mental health issues and may not know exactly how to react and what kind of questions you can ask your employee who is showing symptoms. Your employee who is having mental health issues may also not turn to you for help. They may not see or understand what has happened or that their behaviour has changed. They may also be nervous or anxious about how others will respond to them and their situation. It is much easier for the employee to seek help if a reliable person close to them suggests it. When you have a good relationship with your employees, this reliable person close to them can be you.

When an employee shows symptoms, talk to them. You can always ask how they are doing. You do not need to solve their problem but you can give them first aid. Reserve time and a quiet space for the discussion and listen. Agree with the employee on the rest of the workday and immediate arrangements. You can encourage them to talk more about the matter with persons close to them and to seek professional help. If necessary, refer them to appropriate treatment. You can help them make an appointment with occupational health services. Depending on the problem, you can also advise them to contact a specialised service provider.

Work accommodation, support and treatment

It is important for your employee with a mental disorder to get professional help at the right time. It is equally important that you show them that you understand and accept their situation and that others do too. It is also important that you agree on work accommodation together so that the employee can cope with their work and wants to continue doing it. This support offered by the workplace has a decisive impact on how your employee’s symptoms are relieved and how they recover and get better.