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When she applied for a promotion at work last year, Lea, a 25-year-old from Pennsylvania, US, was confident she could do the job. “It was a middle management role at a non-profit media organisation, essentially managing the team I was already on,” she says.
She got the promotion and a pay rise, but things went rapidly downhill. Lea, who is withholding her surname because she still works at the same company, was soon feeling overworked. This led to physical and mental exhaustion. Every day became a struggle.
“Everyone has their work woes, but I really liked my job before I was promoted, and suddenly I really didn’t anymore.” After just nine months, Lea resigned from the position. “I didn’t realise until I stepped away just how much I’d really taken on,” she says.
Middle management can be a tough job, constantly toggling between supervisors above and supervisees below. It can be isolating and taxing; research from Columbia University in 2015 found 18% of middle managers reported symptoms of depression, compared to 12% for blue-collar workers and 11% for owners and executives. Research during the pandemic has shown middle managers are finding it harder than senior leaders to maintain workplaces relationships – and only half feel they can rely on their colleagues.
Middle managers who are millennials are particularly likely to be feeling the squeeze. A MetLife study showed millennial managers are far more likely than managers of any other generation to report burnout. That’s partly due to growing up in a culture that glorifies overwork, plus being a generation saddled with care responsibilities for both parents and children. And with the pandemic nearing the two-year mark, it’s no wonder that millennial middle managers are finding themselves exhausted, demoralised and stressed.
High performers are often tracked into middle management positions, often without much more experience than the people whom they're managing (Credit: Getty Images)
Along with millennial managers, nearly all workers are feeling some form of work stress during the pandemic. But statistics show women are the most burnt out group; according to a survey by LinkedIn of almost 5,000 Americans, 74% of women said they were very or somewhat stressed for work-related reasons, compared with just 61% of employed male respondents.
‘Pressure to perform’
Middle management has always been tricky.
In many cases, these positions go to younger employees who are stepping up for the first time. Young managers, wanting to prove themselves, often struggle with finding their place in the work dynamic. And middle management, by definition, requires them to play dual roles, taking responsibility for employees working under them while still reporting to those above them.
As a new, young manager, Lea says she felt she had something to prove. “I think there’s a lot of pressure to perform, being young and in management,” she says. “Once I moved up in the organisation, I was sometimes confused about where my position lined up with other managers’. It wasn’t always clear what those relationships were. Most of the people I was working with were much older than me, and it made it more difficult.”
The challenges extended to her direct reports, too. “I was managing people who were the same age as me,” she says. “I had only a couple months extra experience than the people I was in charge of. I’d gotten the role because I established good leadership skills, but I was also afraid of being too assertive or dominant.”
This is the “squeeze” of middle management, says Jacob Hirsh, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Toronto. And while it’s stressful to figure out how to handle the issues of employees while simultaneously enforcing the policies of upper management, it’s also pivotal to a healthy work environment. “It’s a necessary position,” he says, “but it’s a structurally difficult position.”
I don’t feel passionate about managing people, and I think I had to learn that the hard way – Lea
Lea says she was surprised at how isolating it felt to be in the middle. “I didn’t have a management team I worked alongside. I just reported up and then down. My direct reports had each other to complain with or talk through whatever they were going through, and I didn’t have that. I got along with everyone I worked with, but it just wasn’t the same.”
It’s also tough to be the person handing down policies or assigning tasks that can draw employees’ ire. It can be difficult, says Hirsh, to find a balance between compassion and accountability.
“On the one hand, upper management is saying, ‘here’s what we need to do’,” he says. “But middle managers see what’s happening to their employees, and of course they have to take some level of responsibility. If you ignore them, you’re going to have a burnt-out workforce, and that’ll hurt the bottom line. It’s not just about managing the work, but the wellbeing of employees as well.”
Simply because of their age – 25 to about 40 – most middle managers are millennials. Being members of that generation may predispose them to worse burnout; their time in the workforce has coincided with the rise of a “hustle culture”: the idea that the more time and energy a person spends at work, the more deserving they are of success.
Shilpa Panchmatia, a London-based business growth coach, says millennials have also seen the rise of a technology-driven culture where “work follows us everywhere at all times”, as well as “the absolute collapse of boundaries between work and life”. And even before the pandemic added extra stress, she notes, millennials may have been more susceptible to burnout than other generations.
Some millennial managers have found themselves taking on their teams' extra work when direct reports overloaded, which contributes to their own stress (Credit: Getty Images)
“They started entering the workforce at the height of the 2008 recession, which made them work-obsessed, with an emphasis on success, which perhaps older generations and the generations following millennials haven’t got,” she says. “For them, it’s been harder to get on the ladder and harder to forge a career, because while they’ve been trying, the world was putting itself together.”
Another primary contributor may be the fact that millennials are, as Hirsh says, “a sandwich generation”. “I’m a millennial. I have two young kids at home, and my mother lives with us; there’s dependence on either side,” he says. “It’s almost like the millennial age cohort has the same structure as middle management. You’re always being pulled in two directions.”
Lea, who’s a caregiver for one of her parents, says work very quickly began to bleed into her personal life. “I found I was frequently answering emails and chats in the hospital, and I started to really resent that,” she says.
The pandemic wellbeing toll
The pandemic intensified work-related stressors of all kinds, and millennial middle managers caught some of the worst of it. The transition to remote work made the most basic aspect of their job – the day-to-day management of employees – much more difficult. At the same time, responsibilities for employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing soared, and many middle managers found themselves struggling to keep their direct reports from burning out.
But, as Lea found, reducing team members’ stress can mean placing more stress on yourself. She says she ended up taking on work from her direct reports.
“They’d say, ‘we’re overloaded, we’re burnt out’, and I knew it was on me. I’d take on extra work so my team wouldn’t burn out, because that’s a bad reflection on me. I had to have one-on-ones with everyone on a regular basis and they’d be like, ‘Someone in my family is sick, someone just died, I just went through a break-up’. Even though I was going through a lot too, knowing that they all had too much on their plate made me reluctant to ask anyone else to pick up slack.”
Being responsible for alleviating other people’s burnout is a good way for middle managers to end up the burnt-out ones, and that starts a vicious cycle
But being responsible for alleviating other people’s burnout is a good way for middle managers to end up the burnt-out ones, says Hirsch, and that starts a vicious cycle.
“When you yourself are burnt out, it makes it harder to support other people’s wellbeing,” he says. “An overworked, overburdened, stressed-out manager just lets the burnout continue. Once the middle managers go down, there’s no support network there.”
Different avenues for development?
The deck may be stacked against millennial middle managers, but there are ways to reduce the stresses of the position.
Boundaries are vital, says Panchmatia; middle managers, more than perhaps any other demographic, need to be monitoring and avoiding over-work. “We should be enforcing reasonable work hours,” she says, an example that’s best set by the bosses of those middle managers. “It’s about establishing a culture within the company that says, ‘hey, it’s not cool to work until six or seven’,” she says.
Those in senior management can also help by ensuring middle managers have the freedom to manage their teams as they see fit, which can help them forge their own identity as a manager.
“Setting clear expectations is important, but that can be done without micromanagement,” she says. “If we move from being task-driven to being productivity-driven, with managers encouraging and enhancing productivity and allowing it to happen wherever, I feel that all employees are happier as people.”
Hirsh says minor adjustments can help reduce stress. “If you’re being asked to simultaneously adopt the identities you portray to upper management and your staff, that’s a powerful trigger of stress, conflict and anxiety.” Instead, he says, millennial managers should take care to schedule meetings with upper management and underlings separately. “Simple things like that, on the surface seem like no big deal, but psychologically, having that distance between identities can make it possible to perform both without them interfering with each other.”
That kind of boundary can help keep middle managers from constantly feeling like the rope in a bout of tug-of-war. Yet it’s also healthy to acknowledge sometimes management is not for everyone. Companies can better serve their employees by finding ways to create paths for development and promotion that don’t require people to become middle managers, or to be responsible for other employees at all.
“I felt pretty torn up about leaving [the position], but at the same time, I think I knew it was the right thing for me,” says Lea. “I don’t feel passionate about managing people, and I think I had to learn that the hard way. I wanted – and still want – my career to move forward, obviously. I do wish there were clearer avenues for people who want to advance their career but don’t want to be managers.”