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Middle managers bear the brunt in a new world of work

In a new world of hybrid and remote working, burnout risk is escalating amid the need to juggle demands of superiors’ demands and staff’s expectations

If any group deserves a special present this Christmas, it’s middle managers, who have spent the last two years juggling the demands and expectations of their superiors on one side and the demands and expectations of their direct reports on the other.

As a consequence of feeling like, “the meat in the organisational sandwich” as one put it, middle managers are now at the highest risk of burnout according to successive employee pulse surveys. And hybrid working has only made things worse.

Those managing teams with some members working from home while others are in the office say it’s exhausting and a logistical nightmare, especially if rush jobs are required.

“When everyone is together you can get them in one place within minutes, quickly redirect their activity and thrash out any issues arising there and then. It’s very difficult to change direction quickly with a distributed team. But those above me don’t seem to get that, and are still telling you how you should be structuring people’s working days,” says one manager overseeing a team of 16 in the IT sector.


“I appreciate that the people running the show are on a big learning curve, like the rest of us, but it’s very stressful when the goalposts are constantly being moved and there is no clarity on workflow or deadlines. This makes it so much harder to manage people’s working day expectations and schedule tasks.”

It’s largely been middle management’s responsibility to implement and police their organisation’s hybrid policy, yet many are doing so with little if any consultation

In an October 2022 survey from the US think-tank Future Forum (based on a sample of more than 10,000 knowledge workers), executives reported a sharp increase in work-related stress and anxiety, a worsening work-life balance and reduced job satisfaction. In addition, 43 per cent of middle managers described themselves as feeling burnt out.

The survey commentary noted: “The leaders with the lowest overall scores for sentiment and experience are middle managers, particularly middle managers at enterprise-level companies, who show the lowest scores for work-life balance along with the highest levels of stress and anxiety.”

Tom Hennessy, founder of Alive Coaching, says these findings reflect what he’s seeing every day – a marked escalation in middle manager overload, particularly since flexible working was introduced. “It’s largely been middle management’s responsibility to implement and police their organisation’s hybrid policy, yet many are doing so with little if any consultation,” he says.

“As a result, they are often the ones ending up in the office most days, because they need to connect with their teams and also with their own bosses who are coming and going. On top of this, their fellow middle managers may be coming in on different days, so they are not getting the usual peer support.

“What we are seeing is a group of people who are feeling isolated and missing their ‘regular tribe’ who were central to the nice parts of the social aspects of work.”

Organisational behaviour expert Prof Karan Sonpar from UCD’s Smurfit graduate business school says that managing hybrid working has created a big challenge for middle managers. “Firstly, some functional roles are more suited to hybrid working than others, meaning it’s difficult to use the same measuring stick for all employees,” he says.

“Next, there is a varying appetite for hybrid or remote work. Thirdly, the pandemic has made it fairly clear that fixed office hours and long commutes are not needed in some industries or functional roles.

“Taken together, there is now an expectation of remote and hybrid work without clarity on how it might be implemented in an equitable and effective manner. This has created enormous challenges for first line supervisors who need to balance organisational and employee needs.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that middle managers are often working excessively long hours because of an emerging skills deficit that’s falling to them to plug, Tom Hennessy adds.

“We’ve had a prolonged period of people not being together so there has been little or no learning on the job or learning by osmosis. So, people are not picking up the things they would normally pick up just from watching and listening to the people around them,” he says. “The result is that many are well behind in building their skills and their managers are having to step in to help them while also doing their own jobs.

“This core group have been under so much pressure that they’ve lost their way and, with it, their resilience. Unsurprisingly, they are feeling downbeat and disheartened and are burning out at a rate not seen previously.”

The pandemic has made it fairly clear that fixed office hours and long commutes are not needed in some industries or functional roles

Prof Sonpar says that, in principle, managers should be left alone to handle the working arrangements for their teams without being micromanaged from above.

“The number one factor that impacts employee motivation is the quality of their first-line supervisor and they are in the best position to assess, allocate and monitor working arrangements,” he says. “While it is fine for senior managers to provide a few broad expectations, we should let first-line supervisors run their teams. Intervening should be avoided.”

Organisations can also support their managers by setting clear expectations around the norms for hybrid working, says Prof Sonpar, who also adds that confusion and aggravation can be minimised if a business is clear about its behaviours and work practices when hiring.

“The worst thing an organisation or manager can do is be inconsistent. Individuals are able to adapt to most leadership styles as long as there is consistency,” he says.

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business