Real Solutions for Middle Manager Stress and Improved Employee Wellness

To create a truly healthy corporate culture, define trade-offs and model the behavior you want to see.

Middle managers are asked to hold constant tension: when change happens, they’re expected to move through their own change journey quickly (even if they haven’t had a say in designing the change), then support people through theirs. They guide work, but if there’s a hiccup somewhere, they’re also expected to pick up the slack. And their behavior sets the tone for their teams—so if middle managers are stressed, it’s likely their employees are, too.

It’s no wonder, then, that managers are struggling with wellness at work: they’re left to tow the company line while supporting their people through emotional turmoil. 53% of employees prioritize health and wellness more now compared to before the pandemic, and nearly half of employees quit jobs in 2020 due to personal well-being, mental health, or work life balance—yet 74% of managers don’t have the influence or resources to make change for employees.

To truly support your middle managers and foster a meaningful approach to corporate wellness:

  • Start with the culture you want to create, not the perks you want to offer.  When discussing “wellness” for employees, it’s natural to brainstorm solutions: free meditation apps! Lunchtime yoga! As a result, these initiatives can make it  feel like it’s up to the employee to choose between work or wellness. Instead, create a vision for your workplace culture that ties to your overall strategy: how do you want employees to feel? How do you want them to speak about their work?
  • Define your organization-wide tradeoffs. Decide on and name the boundaries of your wellness commitment. Recognize that it very well may mean reducing the number of priorities you have as a company. If you’re not willing to do that, then understand that wellness will suffer–and create a plan as best you can.
  • Ask employees what wellness means to them. “Wellness” often has more to do with the stress of the work itself than with any self-care practices. Ask and listen: if employees respond that they are overworked or that there are larger systemic norms or practices preventing wellness or work life balance, create mechanisms for addressing the culture, such as by paring down priorities, or staffing up.
  • Allow for autonomy. People experience work life balance in different ways: some would rather skip lunch and go home at 5 every day, and others need that time to be productive in the afternoon. Don’t assume that your preferred way is the “right” way, and then implement broad-brush solutions. Stand firm on your organizational trade-offs, and then let managers support their peoples’ individual choices.
  • Assess team capacity. Managers are often tasked with managing team capacity after project priorities are already defined. Flip the script. Understand the capacity of your teams, and shape your priorities to that. Your teams will deliver much better results, and you’ll prevent undesirable side effects of over-work, such as unreported or over-reported overtime.
  • Model everything, and expect managers to model. If leaders are overworked, managers will think they need to overwork, and teams will follow suit. Stop the glorification of overwork: instead, take a moment in a meeting to suggest that a tired employee takes the afternoon off. Remind folks when they are on vacation to put their out of office message on their email, and ignore it (and make sure you do the same). These small and simple actions can be more powerful for workplace wellness than any perk.
Published April 17, 2022

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