What if we also looked after managers’ mental health?

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Scientific interpretation

What have you done lately to recognize your manager or support them in their work–life balance? If the answer does not spring to mind, you are not alone: the same is true for many employees. While we already know that the manager plays a key role in their employees’ mental health through the behaviours the manager adopts, looking at the employees’ role in the health of their manager is less common. Yet, managers are part of the employment group that has the highest stress levels. How can employees contribute concretely to the mental health of their managers?

As part of their study, St-Hilaire, Gilbert and Brun (2018) interviewed subordinates and managers to identify the behaviours that could have an effect on psychosocial risk factors related to their managers’ mental health at work, as well as to examine whether managers perceive the same practices as those reported by subordinates.

Expert advisers:

France ST-HILAIRE, associate professor, human resources management, Université de Sherbrooke

PATRICE DANEAU, doctoral student in administration, Université de Sherbrooke


Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

JOSÉE CHARBONNEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke 

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.


Acting on psychosocial risks to promote workers’ mental health at work

Psychosocial risks (also called sources of stress) refer to aspects of work organization and management that may cause harm at the social, psychological and physical level. For example, these risks can lead to increased workloads, reduced autonomy or a lack of recognition of social support, and therefore present a threat to workers’ mental health.

Develop behaviours and leadership to act on mental health at work and psychosocial risks

More and more studies point out that the development of management behaviours and good leadership help to reduce employees’ exposure to psychosocial risks.

Aim for reciprocity for adopting practices that are good for everyone’s mental health

The manager’s ability to adopt healthy management practices is also influenced by their subordinates’ behaviours. Related to how subordinates behave, a manager can sometimes introduce psychosocial risks (e.g., not giving subordinates freedom in how they do their work, not noticing a subordinate’s work), and sometimes protective factors (e.g., celebrating their subordinate’s successes, asking about their subordinate’s workload).

Complete reference

St-Hilaire, F., Gilbert, M.-H., & Brun, J.-P. (2017, OnlineFirst). What if subordinates took care of managers’ mental health at work? The International Journal of Human Resource Management.


Data were collected in 2008–2009 in a public services organization of 10,000 employees in Quebec, Canada.

70 semi-directed interviews were conducted with employees and their managers.

In the sample of subordinates (45 employees):

  • 18.6% were office staff and technical staff
  • 38.5% were professional staff
  • 62% were women

In the sample of managers (25 managers):

  • 88% were front-line managers
  • 12% were middle managers
  • 48% were women

The interviews touched on psychosocial risks and aimed to identify work practices that subordinates can do to reduce these risks.

Examples of questions

To managers

  • What do your subordinates do to show appreciation?
  • Can you tell me about a situation where a subordinate showed you appreciation?

To subordinates

  • What do you do to show appreciation to your manager?
  • Can you tell me about a situation where you showed appreciation towards your manager?



38 practices that the subordinate can adopt to promote their manager’s mental health!

Whether by being supportive, standing with, contributing, building a relationship, sharing information or acting ethically, subordinates can develop 12 skills which translate into 38 concrete practices to promote managers’ mental health.



Work practices

Practices for being supportive 

  • Do the work



  • Support the work
  • Give a good performance, do quality work  
  • Respect deadlines


  • Demonstrate reliability / consistency
  • Be available
  • Offer to help your manager
  • Take on tasks when your manager is overstretched
  • Replace your manager for certain tasks
  • Replace or help a colleague
  • Adjust your work schedule when needed
  • Set aside tasks to help a colleague
  • Take part during busy periods

Practices for standing with 

  • Foster the climate 
  • Acknowledge the work
  • Balance your manager’s point of view with your team’s (or colleagues’)
  • Inform your manager about the team’s situation
  • Express your support to their manager
  • Express your satisfaction to your manager
  • Highlight your manager’s successes

Practices for contributing

  • Make suggestions





  • Take initiative
  • Discuss a decision with your manager
  • Find or suggest solutions to problems and frustrations
  • Identify or discuss work among colleagues
  • Develop work methods to make the task easier


  • Enlist the appropriate hierarchical level to resolve a problem rather than always appealing to your immediate supervisor
  • Work more to respect deadlines
  • Lead tasks or a project

Practices for building a relationship

  • Interact




  • Establish a relationship 
  • Be friendly
  • Make conversation (small talk)
  • Participate in or invite others to social activities
  • Have rituals for special occasions


  • Demonstrate listening and availability
  • Provide emotional support
  • Tease, laugh
  • Show respect and consideration
  • Ask about your manager

Practices for sharing information 

  • Circulate information


  • Express yourself  


  •   Dialogue
  • Give necessary information to your manager


  • Let your manager know about your frustrations
  • Let them know how the work is progressing


  • Consult your manager on important decisions

Practices for acting ethically

  • Show integrity
  • Be honest and transparent

Managers’ mental health: a responsibility that is still not fully shared.

The managers who took part in the study pointed out a greater variety of work practices than did their employees. It was more difficult for employees to identify practices they could adopt to reduce the psychosocial risks related to their manager’s mental health.

Because studies must always be interpreted with caution

The participants were from a single organization in Québec (Canada); data collection in other employment sectors (e.g., the manufacturing sector) could bring out other types of practices. Also, the public organization studied is very large and hierarchical. For this reason, the study should be replicated in other contexts.




Create an environment that promotes healthy work practices

  • Show the organization’s commitment to workers’ mental health by making it a priority and incorporating it in its business strategy.
  • Ensure that subordinates have what they need to take care of their own mental health at work, so they can adopt healthy practices.
  • Begin and continue a dialogue on management’s activity and work to allow work practices based on
    • resources available to subordinates;
    • needs of managers and subordinates;
    • the organization’s internal climate;
    • the effects of practices adopted on managers and employees.
  • Talk to workers about mental health at work and its risk factors to help them recognize its signs and symptoms.

Encourage shared responsibility

  • Set the example, as managers, by adopting healthy leadership and management practices (e.g., be transparent, be cordial and approachable, pay attention to the state of their subordinates, ask about their subordinates, show consideration, listen and be available, preserve downtimes, and work times, of their subordinates).
  • Talk to subordinates and encourage their participation when it comes to mental health at work.
  • Promote the role of subordinates in mental health interventions at work and daily activities at work.

Promote the proactiveness of subordinates

  • Recognize, encourage and allow the taking of initiative by subordinates in the organization.
  • Express appreciation to subordinates who adopt healthy work practices.
  • Offer subordinates the opportunity to contribute beyond their duties, by delegating tasks when the time is right and suitable for each person.
  • Make sure that subordinates have sufficient resources (e.g., autonomy, decision-making flexibility, room to manoeuvre), to put in place healthy practices (e.g., find a solution to a problem).
  • Emphasize and encourage certain work practices that are appropriate to the organizational context (e.g., a large, hierarchical organization that requires a number of approvals before taking action could limit subordinates taking initiative).

Improve the quality of manager–subordinate relations

  • Draw attention to the compatibility between managers and employees, to foster the virtuous circle: positive management practices will lead to healthy work practices in return.
  • Encourage times of informal discussion that allow employees to know their manager better: their characteristics and their needs.

Incorporate mental health at work into various aspects of human resources management

  • Introduce indicators related to work practices that foster mental health at work when hiring employees and doing performance reviews.
  • Incorporate healthy work practices in training and integrating new employees to set expectations regarding work practices of subordinates and mental health at work.


This study offers an initial reference framework to define concretely practices that employees can adopt to promote their manager’s mental health. To encourage everyone’s shared responsibility for workplace mental health, you need to go beyond simply informing them about good practices.

Have all the recipe ingredients handy

The organizational context and the manager’s practices encourage or hinder the adoption of healthy work practices. You cannot encourage or develop these practices among employees if they do not have what they need to adopt them. As an example, to adopt practices for contributing, the manager and the organizational culture must allow, and even promote, autonomy and acknowledge initiative.

Be aware before taking action

Judgment and the ability to think are called upon in adopting work practices. The subordinate must be able to decipher the psychosocial risks of their environment in order to adopt effective and appropriate practices.

Put on your oxygen mask before helping another person to put on theirs

Employees’ state of health will allow them to adopt (or not adopt) healthy work practices towards their managers’ mental health at work.



St-Hilaire, F., Daneau, P., Fouquet, E., Charbonneau, J. (2018). What if we also looked after managers’ mental health?. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com


St-Hilaire, F., Gilbert, M.-H., & Brun, J.-P. (2017, OnlineFirst). What if subordinates took care of managers’ mental health at work? The International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton