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Deborah Astles


HR Director, Policy and Corporate Responsibility

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How training our managers to ‘listen’ reduced absence


Deborah Astles is HR Director for corporate responsibility and policy at the logistics and manufacturing company Unipart. In this article she explores how managerial training reduced workplace absence.

As a nation, we’re getting better at opening up the conversation around mental health, with many employees opting to confide in their manager in the first instance.

On the face of it, this seems like a good idea: their manager knows them and has demonstrated experience at solving workplace problems. So, the employee naturally assumes, their manager might also be able to help them find answers and solutions to more personal problems.

However, for those managers who haven’t had any training or experience of dealing with a distressed employee, the chances of them providing an appropriate response are limited.

So when feedback from our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) revealed the extent to which our own workforce was struggling with emotional distress, due to issues such as relationship breakup, financial worries and sleep loss due to stress and anxiety, we recognised the need to proactively develop our managers to become better listeners.

Training managers in a five-step process

Our ultimate goal was to train managers to talk to employees about any issue they might be struggling with, so that they could direct them towards appropriate support.

To get the right foundation in place, we asked Validium, our employee wellbeing and mental health solution provider, to create a bespoke training course.

The resulting ‘Managing Pressure Positively’ workshop equipped managers with the following five-step process for helping an employee in distress:

1. ROLE:

Managers were reminded that while they were experienced at solving workplace problems and might be tempted to launch into problem-solving mode on behalf of the employee, they were not mental health professionals and not required to act as pseudo-counsellors.

Instead, they were taught that their role was to invest the time and energy required to really listen to the employee.


Managers were educated on how to acquire one of the most challenging skills: the ability to listen to the employee without jumping in to give them advice or talk about their own experiences.

They were also trained in how to express empathy and ask more questions to draw out all the information.


After working through a case study about a team member who was working longer hours than usual, being snappy in meetings and receiving lots of personal calls, managers were then taught how to summarise the facts of the situation and empathise with the feelings the employee had displayed.

For example, “So you’re worried that your elderly mother can no longer look after herself and you’re spending your lunch breaks and commute searching for care homes and it’s all getting too much… I’m so sorry to hear that and want you to know we’ll do all we can to make this difficult time more bearable for you.”


Next managers were encouraged to refrain from offering their own advice and thoughts to instead help the employee to ‘self-solve’. In the example given, the manager should refrain from giving their own views on care options and instead ask the employee what they could do to improve their situation?

This also gave the manager the opportunity to educate the employee about any support services in place, such as access to the free emotional counselling and eldercare, legal, financial and health advice provided via the Employee Assistance Programme.


The last step we trained managers in was how they could help the employee to create an action plan of specific steps they could do next.

In the case given, this might involve talking to family about what options for care each family member can commit to, researching care homes nearby or calling the Employee Assistance Programme or Age UK for more information about state-funded eldercare.

Whatever actions are taken, it’s important they are generated by the employee, not the manager.

Avoiding the 10 blocks to listening

One of the most challenging skills for managers to acquire was the ability to really listen to what an employee had to say, without jumping in to give advice or falling into any of the other 10 blocks to listening, which were:

1. Comparing… talking about what you did when faced with their problem

2. Filtering…  listening to some things and not others

3. Judging… not listening as you’ve already judged them

4. Advising… just a few words in and you’re already making suggestions

5. Dreaming… what the person is saying is triggering your own memories

6. Identifying… you refer everything they’re saying to your own experience

7. Mindreading… you try to figure out what they’re thinking without listening

8. Rehearsing… your attention is on what you’re going to say next

9. Derailing… if you feel bored or uncomfortable, you change the topic

10. Placating… you make supportive noises but you’re not really listening

By training managers how to use the five-step process of: Role, Listen, Summarise, Self-Solve, Action-Plan, managers learned how to avoid falling into any of the blocks, so that they could instead really listen with empathy.

The results

The workshops were very well received by managers. The feedback is that they feel much more able to support employees now that they know their role is to provide emotional support and help them to self-solve, rather than solve their problems for them.

By increasing the ability of managers to support employees and directing more of them to use our Employee Assistance Programme, the initiative also helped to reduce overall absence by 5% and made employees feel more cared about by 0.5 points in our annual employee engagement survey.

It’s helped us to create a culture where managers feel able to support employees with any issue they’re struggling to cope with.

Author Profile Picture
Deborah Astles

HR Director, Policy and Corporate Responsibility

Read more from Deborah Astles

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