Middle Management


There has been recent focus on the mental health of employees. Dr. Kertay recently published Workplace Mental Health - More Questions than Answers? It includes a quote that captures the situation well: "stress and burnout exist at the intersection of individual resilience, workload, and employer enlightenment." Dr. Kertay proceeds to discuss the challenges of employee wellness, and I am left with the impression that perhaps none of the workplace challenges are necessarily new. He laments that general workplace wellness efforts have not necessarily lived up to potential, and questions the role of efforts focused on mental health.

Reading the perspectives, I was reminded of a recent article published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): Why millennial managers are burned out. This suggests that pressures of management have somehow changed and that middle managers "today face a unique set of circumstances that make burnout more likely." That is an interesting hypothesis, particularly so in light of the recent history being referred to as "the Big Quit," the "Great Resignation," and the "Mass Exodus." In short, The Washington Post reports this week that the rate at which people are leaving their jobs "remains extremely elevated," over four million in October alone.
The BBC strives to address the segment that is management, specifically middle management. It highlights a young worker promoted to manage a team she "was already on.” She soon felt overworked, suffered "physical and mental exhaustion," and resigned. The authors note that middle management can be "isolating and taxing," in explaining this example. But, the authors do little to explain how that is any different today than in the workplace of my youth, or that of the Silent Generation, or the Greatest Generation. The workplace is stressful, management is hard, water is wet, the sky is blue.
Despite that, research is cited that middle management is currently reporting "symptoms of depression" at greater rates than other workers. For some reason, "millennial middle managers are far more likely than managers of any other generation to report burnout." Note that this says "report," so perhaps that is a distinction. Perhaps today's managers are more enlightened and willing to expose the stress or burnout that their predecessors hid and denied? And, the authors lay fault not on the workplace so much as on the way millennials grew "up in a culture that glorifies overwork." That is intriguing when reflecting upon the exhaustion of the 1980s workplace. I cannot speak to whether the focus on work and success is different today, but I have known a great many people over many years that glorified overwork and the drive to success. I struggle to accept that it is something novel or unique, but accept that I may merely not have the perspective to fully understand this particular generation's challenges. 
In short, the BBC article describes various challenges of middle management: "dual roles" required, managing "for the first time," struggles with "finding their place in the work" place, and pressures of proving ability while managing people who are near their same age and possibly are former co-workers turned subordinates. And, to be blunt, the article does little to explain how any of those challenges are different in today's workforce than they have ever been. Despite the article theme of millennials, it candidly notes "middle management has always been tricky."
The BBC also focuses upon the millennials "being a generation saddled with care responsibilities for both parents and children." It provides no data to suggest that such a challenge is new or unique to millennial managers. Pew reports that most people caring for parents are over 40, a milestone millennials are just achieving. It seems more likely that parental care is just now becoming a challenge for most millennials. At best, the author suggests that such dual care is a particular challenge in the time of COVID-19, which is certainly a potential (probability? certainty?). Without doubt, those who have persevered through this pandemic in the working world deserve respect and recognition, and that goes for everyone, not merely managers. I am particularly impressed by all those who have persevered in medical care, service industries, and retail as challenges have abound. The parents of young children have also particularly inspired me with their dedication and focus in the big "pivot" to homeschooling and more. 
The BBC concedes that a great many workers, not just middle managers, are "feeling some form of work stress during the pandemic." It focuses us on a study that demonstrates that "women are the most burnt out group." A staggering "74% of women said they were very or somewhat stressed for work-related reasons, compared with just 61% of employed male respondents." While the 74% is staggering, the 61% is not particularly reassuring either.
Some suggest that what is different is technology. The workplace has itself evolved, as has work. The job today "follows us everywhere at all times.” The digital age has made it more convenient to work, and perhaps too much so. Some see the result as and "absolute collapse of boundaries between work and life.” It is possible that this boundary failure is contributing to stress and burnout. The BBC also contends that somehow "millennials may have been more susceptible to burnout than other generations."
The entire BBC article is worthy of consideration. From my perspective, it poses a great many questions and provides conclusions that seem short on data. The conclusions seem to be that the stressors of millennial managers are different, more difficult, and perhaps unique. However, absent the hypotheses regarding technology and the failure of boundaries, there is scant explanation of the distinctions.
The fact is, however, that the workplace has become harder to escape. Email, cell phones, and more have made it easier for work to stalk us relentlessly. The workplace is likely to present stresses. Life with children and parents that require care will always be stressful. The pandemic has heightened stress for everyone, but the fact remains those with others to care for (children, parents, etc.) are undoubtedly more stressed and stretched. And, in the end, a vast volume of people are quitting jobs. That is undeniable, quantifiable, and it is creating more stressors and challenges for the co-workers that are left behind.
I return to Dr. Kertay's contention "stress and burnout exist at the intersection of individual resilience, workload, and employer enlightenment." It is entirely likely that resilience can be learned and developed over time. We must all perhaps accept that workload has absolute limits and that they will differ from person to person. The focus, perhaps, will have to be on that "individual" element, with a recognition and appreciation that performance and capability are personal attributes. It seems that the acceptance of human limitation and resilience will have to be understood and accommodated by upper management in figuring out how to deliver products and services, that is at least part of the enlightenment mentioned. But, there is also the probability that some people will need accommodation for the emotional strain that competition, stress, and challenges bring. I leave that to the mental health professionals, but recognize the potential. 
In short, there is "stress and burnout." That is seen in the cited surveys. It is suggested that is seen in the "mass exodus." Management is going to have to comprehend both, adjust to both, and find a path forward that engages and accommodates the current generation of worker, manager, and team member. Whether the challenges are new or distinct, the fact is that those challenges are affecting today's workforce and if they are left unchecked employee turnover will continue and perhaps increase. The impact on co-workers in the wake of such departures are likely to be more stress and pressure, followed by more turnover. A problem unaddressed will only lead to more problems, and distraction from production, service, and success.
Management that addresses the challenges will likely find success, and the first step seems to be appreciation for the pressures. How can management address the stress and challenges? How can personal time and boundaries be better recognized and respected? How can retention be fostered and turnover prevented? My suggestion, as a first step, is some hard introspection by upper management in any organization, some perhaps difficult conversations with employees, and some concrete plans for moving forward with recognition that the workplace is symbiotic and every element (person, environment, process) plays a role both in how we work within it and contribute to either the success or the ongoing and expanding stress.
By Judge David Langham


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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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