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Managers play a vital role in any organization. They are trusted team leaders who make strategic decisions and find solutions that drive business success. But with all this responsibility comes high levels of manager stress. Research by Future Forum shows that mid-level managers are feeling burnout more than other workers, with a shocking 43 percent reporting burnout. This group also has the highest levels of stress and lowest levels of work-life balance in the workforce, according to the study.
“Managers are just as susceptible to burnout as other employees and may start exhibiting the typical signs and symptoms,” said Keren Wasserman, an organizational development program manager on Lyra Health’s Workforce Transformation team. “They may start feeling overwhelmed by the work and could begin disengaging as a result.”
Manager burnout is a lose-lose for both managers and organizations. Since managers are so vital to overseeing work and the employee experience, manager burnout and disengagement can have devastating effects on team and company performance.
Why is this crucial section of the workforce seeing rising burnout? The answer is as complex as manager burnout itself and multiple factors may be involved. Managers fill the gap between upper leadership and individual contributors, and many spend much of their time supporting their team members. They help them navigate not just day-to-day work, but also changes in team structure, process, and policy, which are often stressful for employees.
“Managers are the glue for any organization,” said Wasserman. “They bridge leadership, strategy, and vision from the top and are responsible for cascading them throughout the organization.”
Managers are also often the main point of contact throughout the day for their team while also communicating with leaders and fielding requests. That’s a lot of responsibility, which often translates into manager stress. And chronic stress puts people at higher risk for manager burnout. One Gallup survey found 33 to 35 percent of managers are burned out “always” or “very often,” and even more so if they manage people.
Other stressors from being a manager:
Managers are often the first point of contact for employees struggling with professional and personal stress, and many companies don’t provide adequate mental health training for managers to help them address these challenges. This type of training is even more essential since the pandemic began. In a recent survey by Lyra, nearly two-thirds of managers said their role had become more important and more difficult since 2020, and that they were ill-equipped to provide mental health support to their teams. This is at a time when 70 percent of the workforce feels their manager impacts their mental health as much as their spouse.
This also puts managers at risk for compassion fatigue. Similar to burnout, this form of manager stress is caused by providing emotional support to others. Compassion fatigue has seen a dramatic increase in the workplace since the start of the pandemic and, like manager burnout, can result in an inability to be empathetic toward employees.
The American Psychological Association reports that 56 percent of workers believe their salary significantly impacts their stress level. When salaries don’t match job expectations, it can leave employees feeling undervalued, which can fuel resentment and disengagement. While managers typically earn more than their team due to more responsibilities, that salary isn’t always significantly higher and occasionally, they may make less than their direct reports.
It’s tough to stay motivated in a career that feels stagnant. Studies show that the potential for growth at work is a protective factor against work stress, while lack of advancement, learning, and training opportunities generates more stress.
Being a manager sometimes means punching the clock at the expense of spending time with loved ones, handling personal responsibilities, or doing enjoyable activities, which can affect physical and mental health. Research shows that working over 55 hours a week raises the risk of depression symptoms by 65 percent, and the risk of anxiety symptoms 68 percent. Working long hours also ups the risk of health issues like poor sleep, insomnia, fatigue, and injury.
Data shows that the higher the workload, the higher the burnout risk. Tight deadlines and demanding workloads can also increase the risk of depression. Managers may face pressure from leaders to produce outputs that are unrealistic for the number of hours in a workweek and available resources. Many managers are dealing with their own heavy workload while also trying to keep their team from overworking. They may take on more requests rather than delegate to their team, but doing so while also managing a team can backfire.
“Often, managers are shielding their individual contributors from poor work-life balance, so they take on extra tasks,” said Wasserman. “As a result, they may experience higher levels of burnout because they are both executing the work and also managing it.”
Just as role ambiguity and a lack of clear priorities are factors in burnout for employees, they can also add to manager stress. When priorities across the team, department, or organization are unclear, it can cause confusion and friction. Managers of different teams and departments may have conflicting priorities, which can lead to clashes between teams that need to work together. It may be unclear which responsibilities fall to which team, leaving managers to overextend themselves in other areas to ensure projects are finished, or to protect members of their team from conflict or excess work.
When individual contributors are promoted to manage teams, the support they previously had from their own managers may no longer be there, or it may be less available. In some cases, they may become an authority figure overnight, with almost no training on how to lead.
“New managers are often left to fend for themselves,” said Wasserman. “They may not necessarily know how to lead a team right away. Organizational leaders need to take the time to check in and provide support—something all people and all levels within an organization need to be successful.“
Many managers feel their company cultures aren’t supportive, inclusive, or safe. Eighteen percent of employees say their workplace is toxic, and 30 percent have encountered violence, harassment, or abuse on the job. Some factors that contribute to toxic workplaces include poorly defined roles, bullying, gossip, lack of inclusion and diversity, and inadequate recognition. Toxic workplaces can impact mental and physical health, decrease productivity, and lead to absenteeism.
Being a manager can also stoke performance anxiety. Success is determined by their performance and that of their team, which can compound work anxiety. Research shows that some performance pressure can be activating and motivating, but too much can lead to avoidance, low motivation, and anxiety.
When there’s difficult news to share, it’s usually managers who are tapped to tell their teams, and often it means announcing decisions they had no part in making. From layoffs to changes in team structure, to changing policies around remote and hybrid work, managers are the ones talking their teams through these changes. They’re also helping their team tactically navigate new circumstances and deal with accompanying emotions.
As a manager, there’s a lot riding on your shoulders, but there are ways you can decrease manager stress and take care of yourself.
There’s only so much you can control at your job, so it’s important to control what you can. Some ways to minimize manager stress:
Identify your stress triggers at work and put a plan in place to deal with them. Whether it’s difficult co-workers, frequent meetings, or giving team members feedback, those stressors are here to stay, so it makes sense to manage them as best you can. Experiment a little to see what helps you the most. Maybe it’s journaling, taking a walk, or using mindfulness or deep breathing techniques. Think about times when you’ve felt stressed in the past and what helped you overcome those difficult periods. Talk to a mental health coach or a therapist if you need help devising a plan to address manager stress triggers.
Using positivity in your daily interactions at work influences how you and others experience the work that you do and supports a less stressful team culture. For example, make a point to give positive feedback when employees take an action you’d like them to repeat–this builds their confidence and reduces work for you down the line. Another tactic is to consciously choose to regard people and situations with possibilities in mind, rather than roadblocks. When you do this employees will feel bolstered and more self-competent, which will increase their happiness and yours.
Saying no doesn’t come naturally to many of us, and unfortunately, climbing the ladder to a manager role may have meant taking on more work or pushing your limits to “prove yourself” to leaders. But loose boundaries can only work so long before you run out of steam, which can lead to poor work performance and worsening mental health. Boundaries allow us to carve out space to breathe, take care of ourselves, and refuel, so we can be our best for ourselves, our team, and our organization. Work boundaries look different for everyone, but may include not working on evenings and weekends, ending meetings on time, asking to adjust deadlines as needed, or eating lunch away from your desk. And by setting and adhering to your own healthy boundaries, you’ll also make it safe for your team to mind their own boundaries, which will limit the amount of stress they bring to you.
When deadlines are looming and your workload is mounting, taking a break may feel like a luxury you can’t afford. Powering through your day without coming up for air is likely to do more harm than good though. Without breaks, your mind doesn’t have the opportunity to “reset.” Staying on overdrive all the time can fuel anxiety and manager stress, which may have the unintended result of making you less productive.
Talk to your supervisor and present ideas for ways to fix the problems you’re facing. For example, if it’s adding more team members or freelancers, have the job descriptions ready and ideas about fitting them into the budget. You could also show how investing in resources that can ease employee burnout will ultimately boost performance, retention, and productivity—amounting to a healthier workforce—and savings—in the long run.
Take advantage of manager training opportunities that can help you learn how to cope with manager stress. From burnout prevention strategies, to mental health training for managers, to improving your management style, ask your boss if you can take part in professional and personal development training that will benefit you and your organization.
If manager stress is affecting your life, consider seeing a mental health professional. Experiencing changes in sleep, appetite, and physical health are just a few signs that therapy may be the best next step.
Effective stress management in the workplace is a key part of individual and company success. Managers can take steps to manage their own stress and protect their mental health, but real change comes from a supportive company culture. Here are a few ways company leaders can create a healthy work culture that prioritizes employee mental health.
Managers often have regular one-on-one meetings with team members, but sometimes managers aren’t able to have the same check-in with their own supervisors, which can make them feel isolated. Continuing to check in at every level can help empower managers to ask for help when they need it. During these meetings, managers should be encouraged to talk through challenges, including their stress levels. These conversations can offer a space where leadership can help identify solutions, so managers don’t feel they have to find all of the answers themselves.
“There’s no stage within a career ladder where suddenly people don’t need coaching, guidance, or support in their role,” said Wasserman.
One of the most important ways to prevent manager burnout is for department leaders to clearly define goals, roles, and responsibilities. Removing ambiguity can help reduce friction and anxiety about what needs to happen next, and who’s going to do the work.
“If priorities are aligned and everyone is clear on the work scope, then the manager will know what they and the team need to focus on to deliver the best possible results,” said Wasserman.
Mental health benefits are more widely offered as part of a comprehensive benefits package, but if they aren’t publicized, employees may not know this option is available to them. By promoting the benefits and normalizing their use, employees and managers are more likely to utilize them.
Start by having company leaders talk openly about their mental health and the available benefits. This encourages managers to not only seek support for manager stress but to feel more comfortable helping their team members find help when needed. Using mental health benefits can help managers learn to better handle their stress and anxiety, so they’re better positioned to support their team.
Just as learning should never stop, manager training should be an ongoing effort. Training can help managers learn to lead a team, delegate responsibilities, and support their team by offering greater job autonomy.
“Consider coaching managers to provide their individual contributors greater job autonomy,” Wasserman suggested. “More job autonomy can lead to greater job satisfaction across the board. When individuals with the right amount of job autonomy feel greater ownership over their work, managers are free from providing detailed oversight so that they can focus on other priorities to avoid becoming consistently overloaded.”
It’s also important that managers know what training is available to them. According to Lyra’s latest survey, only 53 percent of supervisors said they have the resources and training needed to cultivate a supportive work experience for their teams. By contrast, 67 percent of benefits leaders said managers have these types of resources and training, so spreading the word about these resources is just as important as offering them.
Being a manager is tough sometimes, but it can also be rewarding. If manager burnout or anxiety has replaced the excitement and motivation you once felt about your role, there are support and resources that can help you reclaim the good parts of your job, decrease manager stress, and safeguard your mental health.