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The Health of Middle Managers: What You Can Do to Support Your People Leaders

Middle managers are the backbone of any organization, bridging the gap between senior leadership’s vision and its execution with employees on the ground. These people leaders are integral to any organization’s success—but their pivotal role also comes with a unique set of challenges. 

Balancing the requests of senior leaders with the individual needs of team members is no easy task—and without an effective wellness strategy to support their overall wellbeing, it’s easy for middle managers to stretch themselves too thin and burn out. In fact, a survey from 2023 found that nearly half of individuals are aiming to leave their middle management positions this year due to a lack of support, signaling a worrying wave of resignations.

But what exactly is causing middle managers to feel burned out, and how can senior leaders better support them and keep their businesses intact?

Let’s take a closer look at the burden organizations carry from middle management burnout, along with six effective strategies to prevent it from happening.

The Crucial Role of Middle Managers

Before we can understand why middle managers are burning out, it’s important to understand how their role poses unique challenges that lead to stress in the first place.

Middle managers have a critical part to play in an organization, acting as the vital link between the strategic directives from leadership and the day-to-day operations of employees. From managing projects and fostering team cohesion to implementing feedback from their own managers, the roles and responsibilities of middle managers are essential to implementing high-level decisions effectively and translating them into actionable plans and processes. 

However, it’s that same dual responsibility of balancing upper management requests with the needs of their direct reports that can lead to difficulties.

Not only can middle-level managers often get caught in the middle of conflicts at different levels, but their role can also conflict with itself—as they both delegate work and perform it. 

The result? Mid-level leaders must often work for long hours and under high amounts of stress as they navigate complex organizational dynamics and expectations. Some may even be operating with limited resources or authority, yet they’re still held accountable for results, leading to the feeling of being stretched thin. 

Add to that the stress from their personal lives and growing financial anxieties, and it’s clear to see how burnout escalates in middle managers.

Addressing Burnout Among Middle Managers

The past year has been particularly challenging for mid-level managers. 

According to a Ceridian survey, a whopping 90% of middle managers experienced burnout in 2023 alone, while a Gallup poll found 64% were given additional job responsibilities on top of their already intense workloads. At the same time, middle managers were also the most susceptible to being laid off last year, with some expecting this trend to continue into 2024 as companies look to further cut costs.

With pressure coming from all ends, middle managers are being put in increasingly stressful situations that seem to get more and more tenuous every day. That’s why 55% say they’re actively looking for new roles, compared to just under half of all individual contributors. 

And with lingering trends like quiet quitting putting organizations at risk of increased attrition, it’s never been more crucial for senior leaders to keep a pulse on middle manager sentiments and support their wellbeing.

Leadership’s Role in Supporting Middle Managers

As McKinsey states in a recent article, middle managers drive organizational success, but only if they have the proper support. 

Too often, middle managers are held back from achieving their full potential. With limited resources and authority, their role as frontline leaders can become ineffective almost by design, resulting in frustration, burnout, and potential turnover.

On the other hand, successful employers not only understand the crucial role middle managers play in translating ideas into action, but they also recognize their own responsibility in supporting their middle management teams. 

Beyond harnessing and developing the leadership skills of mid-level managers, organizations must also work on addressing their unique challenges and providing the support they need to prevent burnout. Moreover, it’s essential to build a work environment that prioritizes holistic wellbeing at all levels and a company culture that demonstrably values and actively encourages a healthy work-life balance, ensuring middle managers have the time and space to recharge.

How to Identify Burnout in Middle-Level Managers

Proactively spotting symptoms of burnout is one of the first steps to effectively address it, but it’s not always simple to identify.

While it might be easy to see the consequences of stress and burnout in performance dips for some employees, middle managers don’t always have such clear metrics to signal underlying stress. More often, it’s subtle or significant changes in behavior that reveal how they truly feel.

For many middle managers, burnout can manifest itself in a range of behavioral symptoms, such as:

  • Reduced engagement in meetings
  • Feeling distant from a job or feedback
  • Low confidence or reluctance in decision-making
  • Increased irritability or social withdrawal
  • Feeling emotionally overburdened or exhausted
  • Increased absenteeism or even turnover

In addition to the mental impacts of burnout, managers can also experience physical side effects, including:

  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping or staying awake
  • Feeling exhausted or low energy
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Stress-related health issues like high blood pressure

These symptoms of stress can have significant long-term health implications, so leaders must be able to recognize these signs as potential indicators of burnout. Identifying and addressing these symptoms promptly is the most effective way to move the needle on wellbeing across all levels of an organization.

6 Strategies for Combating Middle Manager Burnout

It’s clear that preventing burnout in middle managers is crucial to a healthy and productive work environment—but it’s difficult to know where to start. While tactics like offering bonuses or occasional words of recognition might help in the short term, they do little to prevent future burnout proactively. 

To better care for middle management teams now and in the future, here are six strategies that focus on laying the foundation for effective support for middle managers.

1. Promote Healthy Coping Mechanisms That Build Resilience

Building resilience is key to preventing burnout. Of course, some individuals may be more resilient than others, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taught. 

By offering training and development opportunities that focus on skills like stress management, adaptability, mindfulness, and problem-solving, leaders can give their teams the tools they need to manage their own wellbeing and succeed in both their personal and professional lives.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms is a vital part of building resilience in middle managers. In addition to offering personalized wellness strategies that focus on emotional regulation through things like exercise, hobbies, or meditation, organizations can also work on creating a supportive workplace culture where seeking help isn’t just normalized, it’s encouraged.

2. Emphasize Clear Communication and Feedback

For middle managers, poor communication can become a significant burden, especially when they’re bouncing between senior leaders and direct reports. 

Leaders must establish clear communication, providing unambiguous, consistent messages to avoid confusion. Whether through regular meetings, clear documentation, or open channels for comments, questions, and concerns, it’s essential to stay in the loop and keep everyone aligned with organizational goals.

Similarly, feedback is a crucial component of open communication. For leaders, delivering clear and constructive feedback helps managers identify areas for improvement and reinforces desired behaviors. Encouraging peer feedback and self-assessments can also provide diverse perspectives that help everyone grow. 

But feedback should always be a two-way street. Leaders should be just as open to receiving feedback from middle managers, demonstrating a commitment to mutual growth and understanding.

3. Prioritize Work-Life Balance

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential for anyone, but the long hours of middle managers make them especially susceptible to “workaholic” lifestyles. 

It’s important to actively promote policies that support a healthy balance, such as flexible working hours, remote options, mental health days, or even compressed workweeks. Encouraging middle managers to take the time they need to disconnect from work can help them recharge and return more focused and productive the next day.

Beyond policies, it’s important to cultivate a culture that respects the boundaries of personal time. Setting clear expectations around working hours can help, as can discouraging after-hour communications—but above all, leaders should model by example. By demonstrating their own commitment to work-life balance, senior leadership can influence the rest of the organization to follow, setting a standard for self-care.

4. Implement Ongoing Training and Professional Development

Professional development opportunities are another essential part of a proactive wellness and retention strategy. 

Not only is it critical for middle managers to stay updated with the latest industry trends, knowledge, and skills, but learning and development opportunities can also prepare them for more pivotal roles within the company. Investing in their development demonstrates the organization’s commitment to their career growth, which can also improve job satisfaction and loyalty.

It’s important to tailor these professional development and middle management training initiatives to the individual. Taking the time to understand their needs and career aspirations and placing them in a mentorship program, continuing education, or development workshop can help them grow into even more effective leaders who can better support their teams and drive the organization toward its goals.

5. Recognize and Reward Hard Work

Recognition is an easy and powerful tool for boosting morale and engagement, but it needs to go beyond the occasional pat on the back. 

Acknowledgement can come in many forms, from verbal praise in meetings to company-wide recognition for significant achievements, but the key is to make it timely and relevant. Celebrating small wins alongside big achievements helps maintain a positive atmosphere and shows that the organization values everyone’s efforts.

Leaders should also remember that rewards don’t have to be monetary. Personalized gestures like additional time off and career growth opportunities can have a profound impact on morale and motivation. Additionally, senior leaders can involve middle management in decision-making or strategic discussions to recognize their expertise and contributions.

6. Encourage Autonomy at Every Level

Last but not least, organizations should actively encourage autonomy at all levels of the organization, specifically middle managers.

Not only does this ease the burden of managing individual contributors, but by empowering middle managers to make decisions on their own and take ownership of their work, leaders demonstrate a level of trust that can improve job satisfaction. Giving managers the freedom to innovate and solve problems in their own way fosters a greater sense of responsibility while boosting engagement.

However, it’s also important to note that autonomy should be balanced with the necessary support systems. Regular check-ins, resources, and guidance when needed help to ensure managers don’t feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Leaders should always be available to help and encourage managers to seek it when needed. 

With the right mix of support and autonomy, organizational leaders can help their middle managers thrive in their roles and their personal lives.

Improve the Wellbeing of Your Middle Managers with WellRight

Looking for ways to elevate the wellbeing of your employees, middle managers, and strategic teams? WellRight has you covered with comprehensive wellness programs tailored to address the unique needs and challenges of your organization.

Discover how WellRight’s solutions empower your people leaders to thrive both personally and professionally. Contact us today.

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