For years, I’ve worked with businesses to build diverse and inclusive workplaces and to address issues such as negative team dynamics and conflict. These days, I’ve learned that it’s crucial to start with a message to managers. I tell them, “I see you. I know how hard you’re working. I know how difficult this time is for you. And I’m here to honor that.” Frequently, this brings up many emotions, as many of these middle managers are feeling the effects of prolonged stress and burnout.
While the past few years have been tumultuous and overwhelming for just about everyone, middle managers have faced extraordinary challenges. As businesses have gone from crisis to crisis, the number of complex responsibilities that have suddenly been thrust onto managers is astounding. With each new challenge, organizations have told managers that the solutions involve them engaging in new forms of leadership.
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Social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have called on corporations to transform and reckon with forms of injustice. The pandemic brought on a global crisis across all industries along with a widespread shift to remote and hybrid work, which are now a norm in the business world. Throughout the Great Resignation, managers have had to deal with unfilled positions, recruit employees in a tight labor market, and work to retain employees by keeping them feeling engaged, trusted, and respected.
The problem is not just that all of this takes time. It’s also the fact that these challenges have required managers to stretch beyond the leadership skill sets that many possess or were trained for. For example, managers used to be trained to avoid asking their employees questions about their personal lives, for fear that employees might perceive some form of bias. Asking a woman whether she has children, for example, could be viewed as a way of assuming she’s less likely to successfully take on a big project. Now, suddenly, managers are being told that they must engage in deep conversations with their employees in order to adjust for their unique work-life challenges. These changes in expectations can add additional stress for managers as they aim to strike a balance in developing deeper relationships while avoiding any perceptions of bias.
To make matters worse, middle managers face pressure from their employees and from higher-ups. Employees want to know why they aren’t being given more time to complete their work or flexibility, for example. And higher-ups are asking why a project is running late or why a team has faced another resignation. All too often, managers don’t have the power to fix these problems. “When you’re the leader of a group of people, you want to have all the answers,” one Canadian-based manager told The Globe and Mail. “But you don’t, and you just feel helpless and burnt out.” A recent study shows that managers’ mental health “is at risk due to their position of authority without strategic power.”
Recent challenges have required managers to stretch beyond the leadership skill sets that many possess or were trained for.
Surveys show that the strain on managers is taking its toll. From 2020 to 2021, the percentage of people managers who reported feeling burned out often or always increased from 28% to 35%, according to a Gallup poll. In addition to higher levels of stress and burnout, surveyed managers reported “worse physical well-being and work-life balance than the people they manage” — and the gap is getting worse. A survey conducted by Visier, a people analytics company, found that managers are leaving their jobs at higher rates than nonmanagers.
To be clear, businesses must continue the hard work of addressing systemic problems and finding solutions for big challenges. Fatigue has begun to set in, and some people are pushing back against efforts to build a more diverse workforce, but not letting that happen is critical. Businesses can, however, develop strategies for moving change efforts forward without putting undue pressure or unreasonable expectations on managers.
Here are four solutions that I help organizations implement that can serve as a guide for companies looking to close the exhaustion gap for people managers.
Conduct an initiative audit. Organizations should document what they currently expect middle managers to engage in. Have a team, most likely in HR, develop a spreadsheet that lists all of the tasks and initiatives each level of management is responsible for.
Make sure managers themselves are a part of the information-gathering process. Many are so used to their megaload of responsibilities that they take some for granted, so it’s important to encourage all managers to thoughtfully weigh in. Managers I’ve worked with have said it’s only when they do this that they realize how much they’re expected to achieve in any given week.
Find the overlapping effort. When executives see all of these responsibilities listed, they also realize that it is too much for anyone to handle. And, just as important, they are able to spot overlaps among different initiatives.
For example, the company may have managers overseeing a peer coaching program to help employees gain new skills, along with a separate program to help employees build one-on-one relationships with other colleagues, which are crucial for engagement. But peer coaching can do both, so a separate program may not be needed.
Edit strategically. Because I work so hard to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations, executives are often surprised when I say they should put off some of their DEI initiatives. But some of the programs and events on their dockets — such as full-day training sessions once a month — add even more work for managers and do more to fuel resentment than advancement.
It’s far more damaging for organizations to exhaust managers to the breaking point. I’ve found that many managers are genuinely committed to important goals such as DEI. The problem is not psychological resistance; it’s fatigue. And when managers who share these values leave the company, they take all their work and knowledge with them, setting back these efforts.
In order to reach complex goals, such as those involving DEI and culture, leaders must prioritize activities in a way that engages managers without burning them out.
Consider expanding middle management. Often, we interpret large ranks of middle managers as a sign that a company is too bloated. Yahoo reported in 2019 that companies were “cutting down layers of management in an attempt to streamline business and cut down on unnecessary costs.”
But since then, the work of middle managers has been revolutionized. With everything managers are now expected to do, giving them smaller teams to oversee can often be a key to the solution. Reducing this ratio requires adding more managers.
While all of these steps will help, it’s also crucial to listen to managers about what would work best for them. Ask them how they’re doing, what resources they need, and what changes would help. Perhaps hold an offsite event for them, in which they are honored and given a chance to brainstorm about how to make their work lives better. Managers want to be part of the solution — they just need a chance to breathe.