Duty of Care and the Role of Line Managers

Certified Practitioner FAYE EKONG sheds more light on duty of care for managers being more than an obligation, and how line managers can promote wellbeing and psychological safety within their teams.

Organisational wide discussions around “duty of care” have gained prominence in the recent years and are increasingly becoming part of regular discourse in the humanitarian and non-profit sector. 

In the past, duty of care being defined as the legal and moral obligations an organization needs to fulfill to protect its staff from foreseeable harm, was often viewed through a security, workplace health and safety lens.

While those elements form an important part in any considerations around duty of care, thinking and dialogue has since evolved to encompass broader notions such as employee wellbeing and psychological safety.  As part of commitment 8 of the Core Humanitarian Standard “an agency’s duty of care to its workers includes actions to promote well-being and avoid long-term exhaustion, burnout, injury or illness”.

In the non-profit sector, particularly in a humanitarian or emergency context, staff are physically, emotionally and psychologically exposed to harsh and difficult conditions often times on a continual basis. The environments are complex, unstable and volatile and frequently insecure and unfamiliar. Long working hours, high pressure, isolation, short employment contracts, movement restrictions, lack of access to traditional support systems such as family, friends and loved ones can lead to cumulative stress and in some cases to burnout.

Whereas duty of care policies, practices and approaches are defined at the global organizational level, bringing these policies to life involves practical steps by line managers, team leaders, peers, colleagues and individual staff members. Ultimately, they are the ones who translate duty of care from paper into practice by embodying behaviors and actively promoting ways of working that create a conducive and healthy work environment.

“An agency’s duty of care to its workers includes actions to promote well-being and avoid long-term exhaustion, burnout, injury or illness.”

Commitment 8 of the Core Humanitarian Standard

The focus in the section below is on the role of line managers as they are pivotal in setting the tone and expectations around team and departmental culture and ways of working. Yet, line managers are often not aware of their roles when it comes to duty of care or are not sure what to do.

Quick & basic tips for line managers to promote duty of care within their teams, departments and organizations:

Be Self-Aware

As line manager you are a role model (good or bad) and influencer within your team. Modeling good practices and abiding by relevant organizational duty of care policies yourself is the first step in creating a healthy work environment.

  • Be cognizant that you are the one setting the norms and standards for your team. So, think twice before sending out emails late at night or during weekends. Usually, they can wait a few hours or an extra day.
  • Take breaks for yourself, whether that is a few hours, days or more extended periods. Set boundaries and let others know not to contact you during those periods unless for serious emergencies.
  • Know when to ask for help yourself! Line managers are often juggling many priorities in the air and focused on supporting everyone else that they forget themselves. While short periods of intense stress are usually unavoidable, in the long term you cannot adequately serve your teams or organization if you are not taking care of yourself.

Be Open

Having regular discussions with staff whether in team or individual meetings around duty of care, physical, emotional and psychological well-being removes stigma, judgement and opens the path for dialogue that supports the creation of a positive work environment.

  • Promote a civil workplace and emphasize the importance of workplace fit. Do not shy away from having difficult discussion and providing timely feedback to individuals on behaviors that are not conducive to creating a healthy and productive working environment.
  • Encourage and empower staff to make decisions about their well-being i.e. scheduling leave and rest periods, allowing for ad-hoc or permanent flexible working hours or simply just taking a few hours break.
  • Share your own experiences and stories. Promote peer support initiatives by encouraging team members where possible to seek out others in the team/organization. This breaks down barriers and the wall of silence surrounding particularly emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Be Informed

Being informed of different internal and external support mechanisms and services can go a long way in line managers being able to provide relevant information in a timely manner for staff members in need of additional support.

  • Know the relevant organizational psychosocial support mechanisms that exists and how to access them.
  • Have contact information for external service providers such as Thrive Worldwide or others easily available.
  • Be familiar with the basic details of any Employee Assistance Programs being offered to staff.

This list is by no means exhaustive and there are many additional sources that line managers can consult to get more advice and guidance. However, in implementing just some of these tips managers can create a healthier team culture, help staff thrive and advance duty of care practices within their spheres of influence and control.

Faye Ekong is the Director for Human Resources, Learning & Development at Action Against Hunger USA. She is a SHRM Senior Certified Practitioner committed to learning, professional development and continuous improvement and dedicated to advancing the HR profession in the non-profit sector to play a stronger role in shaping organizational strategy and contributing to organizational success.

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