MANAGERS are more important in the workplace than previously thought and can play a key role in helping reduce stress and mental distress among employees, which can lead to a reduction in absenteeism at work, a new report says.

According to the report published in February by UK business-led charity Business in the Community, line managers should learn how to recognise early signs of workers’ stress, anxiety and depression.

The report, titled Leading on Mental Wellbeing: Transforming the Role of Line Managers, also encourages senior executives to provide support to line managers, who themselves feel susceptible to stress.

"Ask simple, open and nonjudgmental questions about an individual’s mental health, give staff an opportunity to communicate what keeps them well at work," the report states.

Statistics SA and Occupational Care SA, an organisation that provides occupational health services in SA, have noted previously that on any given day, more than 15% of staff could be absent. They believe that two out of three employees who fail to show up at the office are not physically ill, but are rather battling to cope or are unhappy at work.

Commenting on the Business in the Community report, Bruce MacDonald, a management development expert, said on Tuesday that management was all about relationships and how to manage other people.

"This means being empathic and genuine and understanding what drives individuals," said Mr MacDonald.

"Many employers think what employees really want is more money, but what employees really crave is recognition and feedback," he said.

Mr MacDonald, who is also the convener of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business programme for management development, said too often people were promoted to management positions in recognition for their outstanding technical skills, underestimating the importance that people skills and knowledge of human behaviour have on employee performance.

Samantha Crous, Africa regional director at the Top Employers Institute, said that many companies failed to take into account how burnout could affect staff morale and health. The Institute’s statistics show that assistance offered to employees suffering from burnout increased significantly from 36% in 2013 to 46% in 2014.

In the UK, 44% of certified Top Employers have in-house doctors available for staff and some kind of stress management training or support. Other companies encourage wellness by offering yoga or tai chi classes.

But Mr MacDonald said good management goes beyond offering wellbeing programmes.

"There is no substitute to really being able to listen to employees ... a good manager is somebody who knows him or herself well, understands how human beings function under pressure and how to really communicate. It is not as easy as it sounds. If you can get it right then you will see your team and your organisation flourish."