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Equipping line managers to support employee mental health at work

With the help of Mind, Oxford City Council set about improving rates of sickness absence related to stress and anxiety by better equipping line mangers and staff to understand and talk about mental health issues at work.

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The challenge

Oxford City Council was experiencing rising levels of employee sickness absence related to stress and anxiety, as well as increases in the number of occupational health services referrals that were linked to stress. 

Beyond this, there was a strong appetite from the council’s leadership team to rise to the challenge of meeting the external 'Thriving at Work' mental health standards for employers. Thriving at Work is an independent review that outlines what employers can do to better support employees – including those with mental health problems – to remain in and thrive through work. Published in 2017, the review sets out six core standards that all employers can adopt to better support mental health at work. It recommends that public sector employers go further by meeting an additional four enhanced standards.

The solution

As part of its broader approach to mental health at work, the council identified the need to better equip their line managers to support employees. This commenced with a management engagement session and subsequently delivering training and workshops for all managers covering topics such as understanding mental health, spotting the signs of mental health problems, effective listening skills, and how to signpost employees to sources of appropriate internal and external support. An all staff ‘Let’s Talk’ engagement session was also delivered to raise awareness along with a series of communication initiatives

The council recognises that it is vital to train managers in taking a proactive approach; emphasizing the importance of creating an open and supportive culture around mental health for everyone within their teams, as well as being able to respond positively to employees who may need support. 

The council also drew insight from their existing data, including occupational health referrals, employee absence figures, and other management information, to develop a targeted approach to providing extra support to particular areas of the organisation. The data was also used to identify teams that were doing well, so they could share best practice.

Beyond equipping their line managers, the council is taking an organisation-wide approach to mental health at work. This includes providing face to face and e-learning for all employees, having a dedicated health and wellbeing intranet page, developing a cohort of Mental Health First Aiders, and delivering workshops to raise the awareness of  mental health and encourage open discusssion at all levels.

The impact

It is early stages in the initiative and difficult to consider any direct   improvement in performance management data, however it is encouraging that employees are contacting the Mental Healthg First Aiders indicating an increased sense of confidence in talking about mental health in the workplace.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Oxford City Council is going to continue its organisation-wide approach to supporting employee mental health at work. This includes activities to meet the 'Thriving at Work' standards. It is making this part of its broader strategy. Next year, the council’s Investors in People assessment will include a review of workplace wellbeing.

Lessons learned

While introducing a Mental Health First Aider cohort continues to be extremely valuable, the first aiders initially faced some challenges in their roles relating to the boundaries of providing support to employees. In hindsight, the council would have increased the awareness of the role of first aiders across the workforce before training individuals. 


  • Chris Harvey, Organisational Development & Learning Manager, Oxford City Council - [email protected]
  • Alice Robins, Senior Content Officer, Workplace Wellbeing, Mind – [email protected]