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Online Career TipsStudies Show Middle Managers Struggle with Anxiety and Depression Jessica Stasiw April 13, 2018
middle-management-depression

By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Career Tips

Okay, you’re a middle manager. It’s taken you several years and lots of overtime and weekend work to get there. You even have an office of your own. You’re in charge of a team of employees doing important work for your company. So why are you unhappy?

If that description fits your mood and outlook, take heart. You are not alone.

New research shows that having some authority over co-workers is not the key to eternal happiness. In fact, it may be quite the opposite.

Study Finds Middle Managers Experience Highest Rates of Depression and Anxiety

According to a study led by Seth J. Prins, a doctoral student at Columbia University and published in Business Insider, middle managers experience the highest rates of depression and anxiety relative to their superiors and subordinates.

The study looked at nearly 22,000 full-time workers. The researchers divided them into four groups:

  • Owners, or self-employed people who earned over $71,500 a year
  • Managers, or those in an executive role who had at least a college education
  • Supervisors, or those who had less than a college education
  • Workers, or those in blue-collar roles like farming and manufacturing

Results showed that the supervisors and managers had the highest rates of both anxiety and depression. Supervisors had a 19 percent rate of depression and managers had a 14 percent rate, compared to 12 percent for workers and owners. As for anxiety, supervisors had an 11 percent rate and managers had a 7 percent rate, compared to five percent for owners and two percent for workers.

In a study in the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, of the Zenger/Folkman leadership consultancy, examined data from the most unengaged and uncommitted employees from more than 320,000 employees in a variety of organizations.

They identified the employees whose engagement and commitment scores were in the bottom five percent and compared the responses of these 15,729 unhappy souls to the rest. “You might think these would be the people with poor performance ratings or the ones in over their heads – people with inadequate training, education, or experience for the job,” they wrote.

But when they examined the demographic characteristics of this five percent, “we found instead that they could best be described as those ‘stuck in the middle of everything.’” For the most part, these mid-level employees had one college degree, five to 10 years’ tenure, and good performance ratings.

The main factors causing their dissatisfaction included:

  • Their work lacks meaning and purpose
  • Their distinctiveness is not valued or appreciated
  • They see the organization as inefficient and ineffective
  • They are overworked
  • They feel they are treated unfairly compared to others
  • They see no career or promotion opportunities

Moreover, when these employees tried to deal with these frustrations, one issue would have a compounding effect of the others.

For example, when a poor leader shows little interest in a mid-level employee and never discusses career or development opportunities, the unhappy worker will question the value of the work she’s doing. She sees no payoff for herself. If she believes that “nothing I do has any impact or makes a difference,” then she will feel unappreciated and unfairly treated.

But this only applies to five percent of the workforce, so what’s the big deal? The authors ask rhetorically.

Zenger and Folkman answer their own question by pointing out that the five percent “has a powerful impact on others. Their lack of motivation creates drag on the organization. Most firms have fairly narrow profit margins, and turning that 5% around could have a dramatic impact on profitability.”

Help Middle Managers Change, or Change Their Managers

The solution, they say, boils down to helping these middle managers change, or changing their managers.

First, Zenger and Forkman suggest, give these managers a chance to change because typically they have no idea how destructive their own behavior is to their subordinates. They should get “a healthy dose” of constructive feedback in the form of conversation with their boss.

If that doesn’t work, a dispirited manager who has contributed positively in the past could be moved to a new department or given a new role in the organization.

Or, as Columbia’s Prins suggests, for the sake of middle managers’ psychological well-being, “it might be better to let them operate without much autonomy or with total autonomy — rather than be stuck somewhere in the middle.”

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