Boss Loss: The Great Resignation Is Spilling Over into Management

By Brian O’Connell March 7, 2022
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Boss Loss: The Great Resignation Is Spilling Over into Management

​Much has been made of the Great Resignation, during which legions of rank-and-file workers have assessed their career choices and increasingly opted to leave their employers for new, presumably more fulfilling jobs.

But what about their employers, especially their front-line managers? After all, they may be burned out, too—perhaps even more so than their staffers.

"I stepped into a management role in January 2020," said Katy Roby Peter, head of global marketing at Valamis, an e-learning company in Boston, Mass. "By March 2020, our team had doubled in size, and the pandemic happened next."

Roby Peter said she's "struggling but surviving" on the job.

"As a middle manager, I've definitely felt burnout," she said. "Meetings doubled in the pandemic. Boundaries disintegrated. I learned that I need to first take care of myself and my own boundaries by my logging off and setting an example for others."

Roby Peter is hardly alone. According to a report titled The State of the Manager from Humu, a workplace organizational services firm based in Mountain View, Calif., company managers are struggling—and have been for the past two years.

According to the Humu report:

Managers' jobs are 10 times harder than before the pandemic. Managers are struggling across the board, mostly with staff retention, hiring and team performance.

Managers are ready to quit. Managers are two times more likely than individual contributors to be looking for new jobs.

Managers are losing ground on the job. Managers with a history of low performance ratings (Humu used a combination of external company performance metrics and their own performance metrics to evaluate manager performance) have performed significantly worse in key workforce areas.

Corporate managers are especially worn out from two years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting shift to hybrid and remote work has forced managers to accommodate on the fly.

Now, the Humu report concludes, many managers are ready to pull the plug.

"Given how much harder their roles have become, managers are looking for a change of pace," the report stated. "The data shows that attrition risk in 2021 was two times higher among managers than individual contributors, and we expect that trend to continue through 2022."

Under Pressure, and for Good Reason

Workplace experts say managers like Roby Peter are struggling on the job these days for several reasons.

"For starters, the job itself has become more difficult to do effectively," said Marie Roker-Jones, co-founder of EssteemWorld, a corporate sustainability services company in New York City. "Managers are lacking in the training and resources necessary for them to do their jobs."

According to Roker-Jones, the average manager's workload is just "too much" right now, and there's not enough time to get everything done.

"Managers are expected to excel in all aspects of the job—from training, coaching and motivating employees to analyzing data and providing recommendations for improvement," Roker-Jones said. "Unfortunately, companies don't take the time to properly train new managers or support experienced ones. The end result is that many managers are left feeling overwhelmed and underqualified."

What makes the workplace particularly difficult for managers is their place in the company pecking order.

"Managers usually sit between the broader employee base and the executive team and have had to balance different workloads and responsibilities throughout the pandemic," said Sara Schulz, strategy and communications lead at OfficeTogether, a New York City-based workplace collaboration services company. "Managers are especially responsible for communicating employee needs to leadership and are directly responding to and managing employees in times of crisis."

Managers are also responsible for discussing, executing and adhering to the new policies that leadership has put into place as the world shifted to remote and hybrid work models.

"They've worn several hats and have carried the brunt of their employees' stress—often without pay raises and with little recognition," Schulz said.

What to Do About 'Burned Out' Managers?

What can companies do to recognize and address management burnout in the short and long terms?

Workplace experts have some ideas:

Managers should engage with company executives directly. Asking senior executives to lead the fight against burnout should be a priority for front-line managers. In doing so, managers and company leaders can work together as a team to address workplace problems. "For example, managers can provide feedback to the executive-level leaders by simply answering direct questions," said Janice Litvin, a workplace wellness speaker, SHRM recertification provider and author of Banish Burnout Toolkit (Page Beyond Press, 2020).

That doesn't mean generic company surveys, which aren't personal enough, Litvin said.

"What's needed is small group and one-on-one meetings to really ascertain managers' concerns and to strategize solutions," she said.

Ask for direct workplace assistance. Managers, like employees, expect action from company senior executives if they have one foot out the door.

"No one wants to do good work . . . when they have options to leave and upgrade their employment situation," said Leslie Forde, founder of Mom's Hierarchy of Needs, a Boston health and wellness project that advises companies on workplace culture.

If a manager's workload becomes unsustainable or they have responsibilities at home that they can't handle, managers should go to executive management and ask them to provide immediate relief.

"For example, managers can ask their company to hire virtual assistants and/or administrative support," Forde said. "They can ask the higher-ups to reorganize teams to add more staffing or streamline the scope of certain roles. Right now, I'm seeing many organizations offer executive coaching beyond just the C-suite as another way to support managers struggling with the complexities of leading through a tough workplace climate."

Ask for help beyond the job. Forde sees several personal themes in her research that companies can address to take some pressure off managers.

"Managers should make it clear that their companies need to be proactive about child and elder care benefits, job flexibility, creating psychological safety and curating mental health support," she said.

Forde's research focuses mostly on women, who are leaving management positions in greater numbers than before the pandemic emerged. But men, she says, are also leaving high-stress management positions due to caregiving responsibilities and other personal issues.

"When I survey employee groups, which are 50/50 male and female and include non-caregivers, the needs are strikingly similar, Forde said.

Above all, listen to their stories. Companies need to step up and be there for emotionally drained managers. Many have poignant stories to tell and problems to fix.

"There's no amount of learning and training on management or leadership that could have completely prepared me for the years 2020 to 2022 , with  COVID, political turmoil, burnout, grief, the Great Resignation and, most recently , the war in Ukraine," Roby Peter noted.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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