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Line managers: still the missing pieces in the stress management jigsaw?

13 May 2019 | by Guest

The following guest article has been provided by Emma Donaldson-Feilder, Director and Co-Founder of Affinity Health at Work and author of, among others, "Preventing stress in organisations: how to develop positive managers", co-written with Dr Jo Yarker and Dr Rachel Lewis.

It is now over fifteen years since I wrote a piece for Occupational Health Review, entitled ‘Management training and development – the missing piece of the stress management jigsaw’, in which I pointed out that the role of line managers in determining and managing employee stress had been largely overlooked in existing stress management literature.

Whilst a lot of the publicity and column inches around stress management still seems to focus on individual-level approaches there is now, thankfully, much greater awareness of the importance of line managers in preventing and reducing stress.

There is also much more research and literature to support evidence-based practitioners in this area than there was back in 2003. However, we are still a long way from really addressing stress through improving people management across workplaces in the UK (or elsewhere in the world, for that matter).

Just last month, the CIPD released survey results showing that, of the 1078 HR professionals who responded, 43% cited ‘poor management style’ as one of the top three causes of stress in their organisation – up from 32% in 2018 – suggesting that ‘stress-causing’ management approaches may be increasing, rather than decreasing.

So what can occupational psychologists and others do to address this issue?

Firstly, we need to be clear what good, healthy - ‘stress-preventing’ - management styles look like and promote these.

There is now considerable research showing links between particular leadership models (notably transformational leadership) and employee wellbeing, and there are behavioural frameworks that can help clarify what managers need to do.

These frameworks can support managers with self-understanding and can also support those training and developing managers to help them develop relevant knowledge, skills, behaviour and perspectives.

Secondly, we need to encourage employer organisations and professionals in the field to take a systemic perspective on the question of management style.

The organisational culture and environment in which managers operate will have an important effect on how they behave, as will the degree to which relationships and people management are valued, supported and given time (e.g. Lewis, Donaldson-Feilder and Godfree, 2017).

Thirdly, we need to recognise that managers are only human and will themselves be vulnerable to stress. This, of course, will affect their ability to manage others (Harms et al, 2017), so perhaps the ‘poor management style’, cited in the CIPD survey mentioned above, was due to the increased stress levels of the managers in question.

Finally, we need to emphasise that, for managers as for us all, changing behaviour is often hard, and sustaining behaviour change can be even harder.

Short-duration ‘sheep dip’ management training is unlikely to create sustainable change in management/leadership behaviour. Instead, development approaches that use a range of methodologies, over time, including support and feedback, are more likely to be successful (Lewis, Donaldson-Feilder and Godfree, 2017).

In the context of workplace stress management, management development needs to both support managers with managing their own stress and to help them develop good, healthy management/leadership approaches.

There is some initial evidence to suggest that mindfulness and/or meditation could potentially help managers in both these areas (Donaldson-Feilder, Lewis and Yarker, 2018), but perhaps interpersonal mindfulness would be even more beneficial (more of that another time!)

Workplace environments may be changing at an ever-increasing rate and the demands of work may shift and grow over time, but the issue of creating good people management and developing healthy people managers seems to be perennial.


  • CIPD (2019). Health and well-being at work survey – 2019. CIPD Publications: London. Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/health-well-being-work
  • Donaldson, E. (2003). Management training and development – the missing piece of the stress management jigsaw.  Occupational Health Review, 106, pp 27-29.
  • Donaldson-Feilder, E., Lewis, R. & Yarker, J. (2018). What outcomes have mindfulness and meditation interventions for managers and leaders achieved? A systematic review. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28 (1), 11-29, published online Nov 2018, doi: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1359432X.2018.1542379.
  • Lewis, R., Donaldson-Feilder, E., & Godfree, K. (2017). Developing managers to manage sustainable employee engagement, health and well-being – phase 2. CIPD Publications: London. Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/well-being/developing-managers-report
  • Harms, P. D., Credé, M., Tynan, M., Leon, M., & Jeung, W. (2017). Leadership and stress: A meta-analytic review. The Leadership Quarterly, 28(1), 178-194.



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