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The middle management quandary

Middle Management feels the pressure from both sides

We are living in trying times. It’s hardly an original statement, but no less true because of it. In fact, global and local events seem to have caused a perfect storm of anxiety and uncertainty.

And while we are all feeling this storm’s effects, it appears that some are affected by it more than others: Middle managers.

According to research carried out by the Future Forum and reported in Fortune, a stark divide has emerged in terms of how different groups of employees are experiencing—and adapting to—remote work. When it came to having stress at work and wrestling with social isolation, middle managers stood out. According to Future Forum’s survey of 9,000 knowledge workers around the globe, middle managers were 91% more likely to say they were having trouble working remotely when compared to individuals and senior executives. And while more junior and more senior team members largely felt that they were more productive working remotely, middle managers were 36% below individual contributors on that scale, with only 60% feeling that they could manage their workload. An article in MetLife draws the same conclusions: “While managers have done an excellent job alleviating their direct reports’ stress, they themselves remain highly stressed, feeling wedged in the middle of a transforming work culture.”

The squeezed middle

One of the main reasons for this is that middle managers are, by definition, the squeezed middle. “Many middle-managers feel like they are the proverbial ‘ham in the sandwich” points out the Daily Maverick: “They face pressure from their leaders above to implement strategic objectives and deliver on targets while experiencing pressure from their direct reports over issues such as inadequate resources, not being listened to, and organisational decisions that are out of their control. In addition, many organisations, having adjusted to working remotely, have focused their efforts on the physical consequences of COVID-19, ignoring or delegating responsibility for employee mental well-being to middle-level management.”

Heather Connearn, an executive director at the marketing agency Space & Time, says that the burden of implementing new working practices has fallen on this put-upon group. “As a middle manager you end up absorbing the anxiety, challenges and wellbeing of your team. But you feel a responsibility not to project that upwards because you want to seem in control of your role and environment. You also feel pressure to remain positive for everybody as well. A much bigger part of our roles has been about managing wellbeing, rather than performance.”

Women disproportionately affected

There are other issues facing middle managers, too. Because of their ages, these mid-career execs are often working parents who are trying to balance caregiving responsibilities that have bled into the workday. According to a survey of 1200 managers reported in The Times, this has affected women more than men. Just over half the female managers polled said that their wellbeing had declined, compared with 41 per cent of men. A majority of the managers (57 per cent) believed that the wellbeing of their teams had also declined.”

The same survey showed that 43% of middle managers said that hybrid working had made it harder to manage their teams. Only 17% said it had made the job easier. And over half of respondents said that the ability to build meaningful relationships with members of their team had declined.

The other epidemic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified stress as the epidemic of the century and a contributor to poor mental health, with the workplace as the primary source. Who takes the brunt of this stress? Middle managers. According to the United Nations, before the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions accounted for about 13% of the global burden of disease and cost the global economy over $1 trillion per year and are the ‘greatest causes of misery in our world’. WHO estimates that anxiety disorders affect 275 million people worldwide, while depression affects 264 million.

As people have taken stock of their working situation and their wellbeing, many have decided to change jobs, in what has been called the Great Resignation. To mitigate against the worst effects of this, companies must again turn to middle management, according to Forbes magazine: “Middle managers have historically been overlooked and undervalued, yet organisations trust them and hold them responsible for resource allocation, project management and employee performance and behaviour. They’re known to have crucial impact on employee retention, which is particularly important as we enter the third year of a pandemic that has already triggered many resignations, but leaders are often content to look away. Leaders frequently make inspiring statements about company intentions, which the rank-and-file may like, but middle management is the place where those details get worked out, explained and enforced.”

In short, looking after middle management has never been more important. Their role in implementing new working practices, keeping tabs on employee wellbeing, and making workers feel connected and valued in a new hybrid work environment, is as important as it’s ever been. But, as surveys and anecdotal evidence clearly show, they are frazzled. It’s time to look after their wellbeing.

One way to do this is to implement a proven employee wellbeing tool like BuddyBoost. BuddyBoost encourages participants to commit to doing at least 26 minutes of physical activity for 26 days in a month. The data from thousands of participants shows that on average people get a 25% mood boost from the programme. And because participants buddy up into groups, it encourages a degree of connectedness that is sorely missing for many who are working primarily from home. And everyone taking part can post their photos, thoughts and messages of encouragement in the app’s group feed – a form of social media only without people arguing about Brexit or vaccines. This, in turn, helps build morale, and a sense of community within the company.

The brave new hybrid world is filled with opportunity to create a new, sustainable, employee-centred working model that can benefit everyone. But it needs the middle managers to make it work, and as such, they need to be looked after too. The organisations that look after the wellbeing of this crucial stratum of the business hierarchy will be the ones who thrive in the new environment.


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