Research — 29 September 2015

You’ve taken the leap from front-line individual contributor to professional manager. How do you feel? Proud? Excited?

How about depressed?

Middle managers are the most likely people in an organisation to suffer from depression, according to a new study led by Seth Prins, a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and recently published online in Sociology of Health & Illness. The researchers examined more than 20,000 full-time workers, segmented into four main categories: owners, managers, supervisors and workers.

Owners were defined as self-employed individuals who earned more than $US71,500 (the 90th income percentile). Managers were respondents who identified as an executive, administrative or managerial role and possessed more than a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Supervisors likewise identified as executive, administrative or managerial but did not possess a bachelor degree. (The bachelor’s degree was chosen as a proxy for skills in an attempt to separate higher-level management roles from lower-level supervisor positions).

 Owners and workers less depressed

With their groups defined, the researchers then estimated the prevalence of any previous anxiety or depression and then calculated the odds of each category experiencing depression. The researchers found that supervisors and managers had the highest likelihood of depression, with 19 per cent and 16 per cent rate of depression respectively. Owners and workers had much lower rates of depression, just 11 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

One explanation that Prins and his colleagues offer is that middle managers don’t have much authority or autonomy to make decisions like owners do, but still face a lot of external pressure to perform. “Middle managers probably get that perfect mix of having high demands, but not a ton of decision-making authority in order to enforce those demands,” Prins said. Another possible explanation is that middle managers don’t get to interact with customers on the front lines and hence see the impact of their work, but they also don’t get a chance to be a part of the big picture decisions that shape the organisation.

The Prins study is the newest in a line of research suggesting that managers are more likely to suffer depressive symptoms. When Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman looked across 320,000 employees and identified the employees with the lowest engagement  and commitment scores, they found that middle managers were disproportionately represented in the bottom 5 per cent. “When we examined the demographic characteristics of these employees, we found … that they could best be described as those ‘stuck in the middle of everything,'” they wrote. “For the most part, these unhappy people were steady, good performers who’d been in the organisation for some time but appeared to have gotten lost in the shuffle.”

But depression doesn’t have to come automatically with a private office (assuming your organisation has private offices, a lack of which might also be contributing to your depression). While the nature of management work might be triggering depressive symptoms, your promotion is not a prediction of future anxiety. The research offers some clues for improving affect.

Three steps to tackling management stress

The first is to stay connected to the front line, even if your promotion means you’re removed from it. Research suggests that purpose, specifically purpose derived from getting to see the impact of your work, is a potent motivator. If interacting with customers, or at least getting to see that impact on the larger world, keeps you motivated, then don’t let the demands of your new office keep you locked inside of it.

 The second is to get a clear picture early on about how much decision-making authority your new role comes with. While the study suggests that a lack of authority may be one trigger of depressive symptoms, that effect is no doubt compounded when that lack of authority comes as a surprise while trying to meet the demands of the new role. Get clear on what you can and cannot change, and keep your focus on things inside your span of control.

Lastly, there are important implications here for those higher up — the “owners” (or senior executives) who can change their organisations. This is a good reminder that bestowing resources and authority in equal measure matters, and that connecting job demands with the real impact on customers is always a motivator.

And new managers might even find some cold comfort in this research. If your new job feels hard, that’s because it is.

David Burkus is the author of “The Myths of Creativity” and the forthcoming “Under New Management.” He is host of the LDRLB podcast and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University.

This article first appeared on ‘Australian Financial Review’ on 28 September 2015.

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