When it comes to stress, middle managers are like the “sandwich generation” of the workplace. They must manage their own stress and the demands of leadership and absorb their team’s stress as they work to support them. It’s no surprise, then, that managers these days are feeling completely burned out. In this week’s blog, we look at ways you can better support middle managers in the workplace to cope with the pressure they feel from both sides.
The pandemic has been stressful for most workers, but managers have had a particularly rough time. In the beginning, they might have had to lay people off, take a pay cut, assume a greater communications role, and generally rally the troops. This was, of course, in addition to all their regular responsibilities—not to mention pandemic-related personal challenges at home! As the pandemic lingered, the emphasis shifted to keeping remote teams motivated and connected. Now, as many organizations adopt a hybrid model, there’s the challenge of creating cohesion on a distributed team.
It’s no wonder a recent survey by Prudential Financial found that 6 in 10 managers say the pandemic has hurt their mental health. The same survey also noted that “feelings of burnout among managers are high, as they shoulder much of the responsibility for shepherding employees through remote work and into hybrid.”
What has been the effect of all this stress on middle managers? Not surprisingly, research shows that the Great Resignation—or Great Reshuffle—seems to be driven mainly by mid-career employees. Employees between 30 and 45 years old have had the greatest increase in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021.1 It’s a serious retention issue and one that leaders across all industries need to pay close attention to.
So what can we do to help alleviate middle manager burnout? I have a few suggestions:
Support the basics: sleep, exercise and nutrition.
Getting a good night’s sleep, engaging in some movement every day, and eating various fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein are powerful ways to combat stress. Easier said than done, I know. But even small actions in each of these foundational aspects of health can help.
I encourage my team to take time each day for their own well-being. That might be going for a walk, stepping away from their desk for yoga or meditation, or taking advantage of health coaching to reduce workplace stress. For example, when the weather is nice, I do walking meetings with my managers, and I encourage them to do the same with their direct reports. It helps reduce stress in the moment, and I find it mind-clearing and productive.
During our team updates, we sometimes share what we’re cooking these days, exercise and destress activities, or our latest work from home lunch ideas. It’s all about sending the message to managers that these things are critical to the daily management of stress in our lives.
Share a variety of stress management resources.
We know that simply serving up stress management and resiliency training resources without a corresponding change in work culture won’t move the needle on manager stress levels. But, teaching things like meditation, mindfulness, and deep-breathing techniques and reminding employees of counseling sessions through the Employee Assistance Program help manage stress in the moment, and I recommend that all my managers take full advantage of them.
I also encourage people to take time off to refresh and recharge. Many organizations have started implementing company-wide week-long shutdowns or three-day weekends to help employees de-stress, especially during the pandemic. At WebMD Health Services, we often close early the day before a holiday. Sometimes, I’ll schedule a long meeting with the intention of finishing early, and letting people know they should use the extra 20 minutes to step away from work and take some time for themselves.
Finally, we can encourage managers to take time every day to get outside—even if it’s stepping out for a breath of fresh air and feel the sunlight for a couple of minutes. There’s so much research that says spending time in nature—even small amounts—is a known stress-buster. But remember, we need to practice what we preach. That’s why I make it a habit to take a call or bring my laptop outside during a meeting and encourage others to do the same. Change of scenery is always a nice stress relief!
Offer flexibility and permission to set boundaries.
Flexibility is one of the most important tools we have as leaders to help our managers with stress and anxiety. I firmly believe that life happens, family comes first, and if you are flexible and supportive, you will create stronger relationships with your managers and increase overall trust. So, whether that means working non-standard hours, compressing a workweek, taking a personal or mental health day, or leaving early to pick up a child or attend an event, I give my managers the authority to do what they need to do to make their life work. I can personally relate to many times when I’ve needed this flexibility as a working mom of three.
I’m also a big proponent of boundary-setting. We need to support our managers in setting times when they don’t respond to emails, officially “end” the workday, put their laptops away, and take time off without constantly checking devices. Of course, it’s also OK to take a proper lunch break—hopefully with some exercise!
Provide training for emotional conversations.
Managers are being increasingly called upon to have more emotional conversations with employees—whether it’s due to the stresses of the pandemic or the societal and cultural issues we are facing. However, these conversations are relatively new in the workplace and can create additional stress for managers.
Help make this new part of their role easier by providing training, toolkits, job aids, and talking points on how to spot signs that an employee may be struggling with a mental health challenge and how to have conversations with employees about mental health.
Keep the lines of communication open.
Weekly 1:1 meetings with my managers are an invaluable way to connect on a deeper level and surface issues before they become bigger problems. Research backs up this practice: the consulting firm O.C. Tanner found that monthly 1:1s decreased the odds of employee burnout by 39%; that figure increased to 84% for bi-weekly 1:1s.
Listening during these meetings is critical. I always start by talking to my managers about life: how are the kids, what did you do this weekend, and just generally ask, “how are you?” I feel like it sets the stage for an open discussion—and I really do care.
I also seek to learn what I can do to help with challenges they are facing and areas where they need help prioritizing. We also talk candidly about what’s causing their stress so we can problem-solve together.
Pay attention to manager career support and mentorship.
A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted the changing role of managers—from one of “being served” by their teams to “serving” their teams in terms of career progress and professional development. It’s a movement toward being a “people leader” and away from simply supervising the delivery of work.
Unfortunately, what I see happening is that middle managers spend so much time ensuring their team members have goals and a career path that they often feel a little stuck themselves. This can lead to feelings of disengagement and middle management frustration. That’s why it’s crucial to discuss managers’ goals regularly to ensure they feel heard. Then, work together to articulate a career path that will help them feel fulfilled in their work.
Mentorship is another way to motivate middle managers and keep them engaged, especially as they move from individual contributor roles to leading people. The Center for Creative Leadership articulates numerous benefits for mentees: increased adaptability, improved professional identity, greater professional competence, increased career satisfaction, greater acceptance within their organizations, and decreased job stress. Mentorship also provides much-needed support to underrepresented groups in leadership like women and people of color, thereby helping create a more diverse and inclusive organization.
Take stock of “meeting culture” and demands of technology.
Because managers straddle that middle ground between leadership and their teams, they get pulled into far too many meetings. This leads to precious little time to do focused, meaningful work and creates a huge amount of stress.
Many organizations, ours included, are working to reduce the number of meetings and asking people to invite only those whose participation is critical. One clever hack? Have managers intentionally delete and reschedule every meeting on their calendar at the beginning of the year. They’ll be amazed at the number of recurring meetings they can permanently delete.
Modern workplace technology—like email, text, video, and chat apps—also contribute to manager stress. While these tools are great, staying on top of every channel throughout the day is a considerable time and brain drain, leading some experts to coin the term “technostress.” It’s estimated that the average supervisor spends eight hours a workweek—the equivalent of an entire workday—on electronic communication alone. Not to mention many managers feel they need to be “always on” and respond immediately, even after the traditional workday is done. I urge my managers to block time on their calendars during which they’re not available, and set expectations for response time, such as, “You can expect to receive an email or text back within 4 hours.”
Make sure leadership walks the talk.
As leaders, it’s incumbent upon us to set good examples for our managers. Only then will they feel empowered to adopt healthy work habits that support their own well-being. For example:
- Consider your own hours. If we burn the candle at both ends, our managers will likely feel they have to do so as well.
- Set clear boundaries. Leaders need to set boundaries around work and life, too. It’s great to make these things visible by blocking time on your calendar for exercise, meditation, or family commitments.
- Practice self-compassion. It’s no secret that many leaders are incredibly hard on themselves. But if we want our managers to lose their own perfectionist tendencies, we have to role model the right behaviors. This includes letting go of self-criticism, celebrating successes, reframing setbacks, and taking care of ourselves physically with good nutrition and sleep.
- Take mental health days. Be sure to reflect this in your out-of-office reply. For example, something as simple as, “I am taking a mental health day to focus on some self-care” empowers managers to do the same.
Practice empathy and compassion—and embrace authenticity.
We didn’t always see empathy in the workplace because we’d gotten so good at erecting walls between our work and personal lives. But the effects of the pandemic on our collective physical and mental health have made workplace empathy essential. In fact, a recent Forbes article calls empathy the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work.
We need to focus on it, particularly with our middle managers. So, whether it’s a “how are you, really?” at the beginning of a 1:1 or an open sharing of how you’re feeling and coping with stress, leading with empathy and compassion is critical to reducing manager and employee stress.
Allowing managers to be their “authentic selves” can also reduce stress at work. Here at WebMD Health Services, we like to say that you should be “authentically you” and feel safe bringing your whole self to work—no matter your background, experience, gender, race, or sexual orientation.
There’s so much more we could say about how to empower mid-level managers to cope with the unique stresses of their roles. But, simply acknowledging the challenges of middle-level managers so they feel seen and heard is a big first step. And equally important is giving them the time and space to focus on their well-being. Whatever you choose to do, know that it will be appreciated and help keep managers engaged and committed to staying with the organization.