It’s time to stop squeezing the ‘squeezed middle’, for everyone’s benefit
A few years ago, I interviewed a cohort of line managers about how they approach wellbeing conversations in their one-to-ones. One finding that really struck me was the weight of responsibility that the line managers carried and the impact that holding a line managerial role was having on their wellbeing. One line manager said:
‘It feels like I am going home with my own hopes and dreams and then when line managing going home with the hopes and dream of maybe six other people and feeling like I am now responsible for their health and wellbeing, and all this has an impact on how I feel at work.’
It has been recognised that line managers are high up on the table of the ‘most stressed’ members of the workforce (one table that you don’t want to be highly-ranked on), and as I have previously discussed, line managers can be viewed as the ‘squeezed-middle’ as result of their workload and extensive management responsibilities that they undertake. However, too many managers are getting promoted to these positions without ensuring that they have the competencies to manage people, and this stretch in both time and resources not only has an impact on their own wellbeing but can have implications for the wellbeing of those they manage, and organisational productivity. With the ever-increasing expectations of what line managers ‘should be doing’ in their role, surely now is the time that line management wellbeing is taken seriously and think about how organisations stop squeezing the squeezed?
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, line managers were seen as an occupational group most at risk of developing mental ill-health and reduced wellbeing at work, but Covid-19 and the increased logistical and operational difficulties that new working patterns can have for managing staff has suggested that this is a concern that organisations, Occupational Health and HR professionals should be taking more seriously. For example:
- The IES working from home wellbeing survey launched at the start of the pandemic found that employees who had more contact with their line managers when working from home reported improved organisational commitment and job satisfaction (highlighting the important role line managers have for both wellbeing and productivity). However, this often came at a cost for the line managers who reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction and work-life balance in comparison to those without line managerial responsibilities.
- In a recent Gallup workplace survey, line manager stress levels remained high in comparison to non-managerial positions. Line managers reported more burnout, reduced physical well-being and work-life balance than those they manage. Diagnosed depression for line managers increased in 2021, as well as only one in four line managers strongly agreeing that they were able to maintain a healthy balance between work and other personal commitments.
- Further research by the BBC reported that middle managers were feeling the tensions between meeting the demands of their supervisors and those whom they supervise. During the pandemic line managers also found it harder to maintain work relationships, with only half feeling they could rely on their colleagues for support. Younger managers also reported ‘feeling the squeeze’, as a result of a perceived work culture that seemed to glorify overwork.
The consequences of overly squeezed line managers, especially if they are exposed to excessive psychological risks and job demands that exceed psychological resources can include:
- Physical and mental ill-health for managers, especially where it is common for line managers to experience work overload, low levels of autonomy and reduced social support. This can lead to increased absenteeism and presenteeism, reduced organisational commitment, and organisational concerns for the management pipeline.
- Reduced wellbeing and pro-organisational behaviours of those they manage. When a manager is experiencing stress and may have depleted resources this can have implications for how they manage others. If a manager’s capability to regulate their own emotions and reactions in the workplace becomes compromised they may make less effort in meetings, or they may not be as emotionally aware of the concerns and wellbeing of their direct reports.
- Reduced diligence in HRM and policy implementation. Line managers have an important role in fostering an environment of psychological safety and the promotion and facilitation of wellbeing initiatives. If line managers are experiencing mental ill-health at work, they may feel more constrained by their situation, less likely to fulfil their roles efficiently and the quality of HR tasks (such as performance management and appraisals) can be compromised. This can have knock-on effects for both individual and organisational performance if not addressed.
With the over-burden that line managers experience having potential negative outcomes for themselves, their direct reports and for organisational productivity, now is the time to think about what organisations can do to help line manager wellbeing. To achieve this successfully a systematic approach must be adopted focusing on a range of stakeholders.
HR professionals should consider how line managers are chosen, and whether all those promoted to managerial positions have the emotional intelligence and technical experience required to undertake line management duties successfully. We should also question whether line managers are sufficiently trained, emphasising that the ‘people management’ aspect is critical rather than optional. A line manager’s bandwidth may still be stretched, and HR must be there to provide resources to help them. Could HR better define what is expected of line managers or could some responsibilities be devolved back to HR?
Line managers can undertake actions to support their own physical and mental wellbeing, including saying no to management responsibilities if they already feel stretched in their technical role, or recognise they do not have the skills or the motivation to undertake the role sustainably. Line managers should be aware of the responsibilities the role requires and be prepared to ask for training and coaching when necessary; this can be especially important for new management recruits. Managers should also be prepared to practice their own self-care and seek peer support when necessary.
Finally, a line manager’s direct reports may also have a role in preserving line managerial wellbeing. Line management is a two way relationship, and if direct reports see their line management is stressed, it is important for them to ask the ‘how are you doing?’ question and provide time for reflection. They may also be able to help with a line manager’s workload, taking discreet tasks, giving their line manager the opportunity to prioritise the tasks they need to achieve.
Line management requires both technical and emotional intelligence and time. However, line manager wellbeing has been worryingly under-researched given how much a line managers role has expanded, and the importance a line manager has in brining policies to life. As the future of work changes with the potential for further line management challenges, now really is the time to stop squeezing the squeezed-middle, and to put line management wellbeing higher on the organisational agenda.
Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.