Leadership   //   September 7, 2023  ■  3 min read

Stress mounts for middle managers amid RTO, hybrid transitions

Return to office mandates, economic concerns, restructured teams and added responsibilities are currently making middle managers’ jobs harder than ever. They’re more likely to be disengaged, burned out and looking for another job than non-managers, a recent report from Gallup found. 

“Managers are being asked to put more on their already full plates,” said Emily Field, a partner at Mckinsey and author of “Power to the Middle: Why Middle Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work.”

They’re also more likely to feel like their organizations don’t care about their well-being than those at other levels, according to the report, which analyzed data from a series of surveys conducted this year polling over 18,000 U.S. adults working full or part time.

It comes as companies continue experimenting with hybrid work arrangements while battling ongoing pushback from staff, leaving managers left trying to pacify both sides. 

“Managers are being asked to put more on their already full plates."
-Emily Field, a partner at Mckinsey.

“Managers are having to kind of listen to the needs of their team while also enforcing and encouraging return to office strategies that help drive team performance,” said Heather Barrett, a director at Gallup and coauthor of the report. 

Navigating expectations around RTO is probably the biggest challenge for managers currently, experts say. Employers still haven’t found a great way to decide who deserves to continue working remotely and who doesn’t, and some are having to make rare exceptions or requirements around the distance employees live from offices. Most are still letting individual managers use their own discretion though.

Layoffs are another ongoing concern managers are dealing with today, and one they’re certainly not immune to themselves. 

Middle managers are at the greatest risk of losing their jobs during layoffs, another recent Gallup survey of Fortune 500 CHROs found, and those remaining will likely be leading bigger teams. 

“You frequently hear senior managers say ‘there’s too much fat in the middle,’” said Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the University of Manchester. “The actual worker bees — the people who are delivering the products and services — you don’t want to get rid of as much as you want to get rid of the people who are managing those people,” Cooper said.

Over the past three years, managers have increasingly lost faith in how much their employers care about them. Some 48% of managers said they felt their employers cared about their well-being in 2020, compared to 22% in 2023, the Gallup survey found. Accordingly, about 55% of managers said they were looking for a new job this year, up from 48% in 2020.

Some steps organizations can take to fix manager burnout is to better communicate important company updates to managers. Only 30% said they feel their own supervisor keeps them adequately informed about organizational changes, the Gallup report found.

Managers should also have weekly check-in conversations with their own supervisors, just like they do with their own reports. 

Companies should also offer more training opportunities covering topics like how to have meaningful conversations with teams and best practices for managing their performance and development.

“They're having to lead and communicate and manage the performance of their teams very differently in hybrid environments."
-Heather Barrett, a director at Gallup.

Training managers on how to lead hybrid teams is now of growing importance too, with just 30% of respondents saying they’ve gone through any formal training on how to work in this new environment.

“They’re having to lead and communicate and manage the performance of their teams very differently in hybrid environments,” Barrett said.

“Instead of managing by walking around, how does that translate to a more virtual team environment?” Barrett said.