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Manager Burnout Is Getting Worse: Strategies to Help Managers Cope

A recent study found more than two out of five U.S. workers say they’re burned out. Manager burnout statistics are even more alarming, with studies showing that at least 40% to over 50% of managers are experiencing burnout. Read on to learn why managers are feeling this way, what to do about manager burnout, and suggestions for how to prevent it in the future.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and identifies three classic symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy (a measure of confidence in and ability to complete work tasks).

Gallup found that while these symptoms of burnout have lessened for individual contributors over the past couple of years, burnout remains high among middle managers. So what is going on?

A recent Harvard Business Review article sums up the unique issue of manager burnout well: “Managers have had to guide their employees through a pandemic and its aftermath, facing situations that have required them to lead with empathy while managing escalating demands with potentially fewer resources—all while receiving little recognition for their efforts.”1

The Nature of the Manager Role Has Changed

While there are likely many factors contributing to the escalation in manager burnout, two new developments stand out:

The skills required to be a manager are different now.

Managers have always been saddled with a dual responsibility—getting their own work done while also making sure that their direct reports know what’s expected of them, and have the right training and skills to achieve their goals. But now, in the wake of the pandemic, a social justice reckoning, global unrest, the Great Resignation/Reshuffle and more, managers are being additionally called upon to lead with empathy; to be able to have conversations about mental health with employees; and to help team members feel more connected and valued in the workplace. It’s a tall task.

Hybrid work arrangements have made the job of a manager more difficult.

Finding the balance between in-person and remote work is taking a toll on managers. Many leaders want employees to come back to the office, while most employees prefer to work remotely at least part of the time. Managers are stuck in the middle of this tug-of-war. As Gallup states, “They are the translators and the scapegoats.”2

Hybrid work has also made the sheer act of managing more challenging. It’s not easy to coordinate the activities of employees who are on different schedules and might be working from numerous locations. For some managers, it’s also harder to monitor output and track employee progress. A Microsoft study found that 85% of leaders say the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.

Gallup also claims that managers can no longer rely on their peer manager networks for real-time help, advice and support—which not only makes their jobs harder, but also less enjoyable.3

Manager Burnout Is a Significant Retention Risk

Microsoft studied the degree to which the classic symptoms of burnout influenced a manager’s decision to leave the company. They found that managers experiencing:

  • Exhaustion are nearly two times more likely to leave compared to managers not experiencing it;
  • Cynicism are three times as likely to leave;
  • A lack of professional efficacy are three times more likely to leave the company; and
  • All three symptoms are five times more likely to leave compared to a manager experiencing none.

So clearly manager burnout is a significant retention issue, and not just for the manager population. It stands to reason that employees who report to burned out managers may also decide to leave the company if they feel they are not being adequately managed and supported.

How to Mitigate Manager Burnout

Here are several ideas for how organizations can focus on providing the support and care managers need to cope with burnout:

Don’t neglect managers’ own growth and development.

Middle managers often spend so much time ensuring their team members have goals and a career path that they can feel a little stuck themselves. This may lead to feelings of disengagement and frustration. 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. This may include new projects or a different scope of work that can inject new energy and life into their role to increase feelings of professional efficacy.

Focus on well-being and self-care.

It goes without saying that giving managers the tools to focus on all the dimensions of their well-being is key, including physical health, mental health, clinical management, financial wellness and social connections. Many well-being programs, including WebMD’s, have specific solutions to address these needs. Managers also need to feel they have permission to tend to their own care as well as that of their team.

Ensure managers feel connected to the purpose and mission of the organization.

All employees increasingly want to be able to connect what they do each day to the overall mission of the company. This is even more true for managers who must, in turn, impart this sense of purpose to employees. Senior leaders must therefore clearly define goals, milestones and success metrics for managers.

Provide more training in soft skills, like empathy.

While being empathetic comes naturally to some managers, it’s not true for all. After all, many managers were promoted to lead teams based on their own job success, not necessarily because they are inherently good people managers. The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be taught, including how to be a better listener, how to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and how to be more present in interactions with employees.

Support managers in having emotional conversations with employees.

The pandemic broke down many of the barriers between work and life, which is a great thing, but it also means that managers are now more regularly discussing emotional and mental health concerns with employees. Help make this new part of their role easier by providing training, toolkits, job aids, and talking points.

Create a psychologically safe environment for managers, too.

A psychologically safe workplace isn’t just essential for line employees. Managers also need to feel they can speak up about burnout without the fear of being embarrassed, rejected, or humiliated. Manager Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can provide a forum for this type of sharing and support. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can also help.

Recognize and reward managers’ efforts.

Like other employees, managers want to feel their efforts are seen and valued. A quick note from a senior leader, a mention on the company’s recognition platform, or even a small token like a spot reward or additional time off can make a manager feel valued and combat symptoms of burnout.

Give managers permission to truly take time off.

Burnout results from a number of factors, including unrealistic expectations, an overly demanding workload, and lack of support—so simply taking time off isn’t a cure-all. It does give managers the time and space to recharge, though, but only if their time away is respected. Urge managers to set good boundaries around time off so that they can return to work feeling more refreshed.

Be flexible.

Flexibility is one of the most important tools we have as leaders to help our managers with stress and burnout. 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, it’s important to give managers the authority to do what they need to do to make their life work.

Managers have always been the “sandwich generation” of the workforce—balancing the demands of leadership with the needs of their own team. But recent developments have made their roles more complex and demanding, resulting in managers feeling overworked and burned out. It’s critical for organizations to recognize the signs of burnout as a manager and take steps to help combat it with a focus on well-being, flexibility, and additional training. If you’d like help supporting your managers, contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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