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Middle-managers and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic

Fifteen months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, many middle-managers feel like they are the proverbial ‘ham in the sandwich’. They face pressure from their leaders above to implement strategic objectives and deliver on targets while experiencing pressure from their direct reports over issues such as inadequate resources, not being listened to, and organisational decisions that are out of their control. In addition, many organisations, having adjusted to working remotely, have focused their efforts on the physical consequences of COVID-19, ignoring or delegating responsibility for employee mental well-being to middle-level management.

Employee engagement is essential during such critical moments, and middle-managers are at the centre of it all. Although central to creating supportive and healthy working environments for staff, middle-managers, like many of us, are ill-equipped to tackle the challenges of remotely managing their team members’ welfare.

During the last few months, my teaching and consulting work has allowed me to engage with hundreds of middle-managers. One such engagement was focused on how they can better look after their well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many complain about limited personal development opportunities before the pandemic, not being adequately skilled to handle the demands of the pandemic, and challenges that come with working from home. I sense significant job dissatisfaction and elevated stress levels among these managers. 

Who are middle-managers? Although they include various titles and roles within organisations, they share common responsibilities such as monitoring productivity, optimising individual and team performance, and bridging the communication gap between front line employees and top management. 

It’s unfortunate that some middle-managers are experiencing job dissatisfaction and elevated levels of stress. Having been one myself and subsequently leading and studying middle-managers, I have great respect for their role. Although they are often described as the engine of businesses, change implementers, and the glue that keeps companies together, middle-management is sometimes the loneliest place of all management, where pressures come from above and below. William Jones, in his book Middle Management 101: Zen in the Art of Middle Management, described middle-managers as “the most misunderstood, misdirected, misguided, poorly trained, and ‘hung out to dry’ member of our entire workforce.”

Research on the impact of COVID-19 and working from home suggests that hybrid work models in organisations have made the role of middle-managers even more critical. Given the need to coach, mentor, and manage employees working away from the traditional office setting while adapting to personal challenges and constraints, middle managers are under a lot of pressure as they try and manage employees dealing with a lot of stress. 

Research on mental health across the globe, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,  suggests high rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and general psychological distress driven by job losses, financial worries, workplace stress, disruptions to work and education, loneliness, loss of loved ones and fear of COVID-19 infection.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified stress as the epidemic of the century and a contributor to poor mental health with the workplace as the primary source. Who takes the brunt of this stress? Middle managers. According to the United Nations, before the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions accounted for about 13% of the global burden of disease and cost the global economy over $1 trillion per year and are the ‘greatest causes of misery in our world’.  WHO estimates that anxiety disorders affect 275 million people worldwide, while depression affects 264 million. Research indicates that in South Africa, depression affects 1 in 4 employees, and 8 in 10 employees will continue working despite depression. This costs the economy nearly R30 billion per annum while R200 billion is lost annually due to employees with depression reporting for work whilst unwell.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), resilience, stress tolerance, and adaptability are among the top ten most crucial skills for 2021. It is critical not only for middle-managers who lead other employees but all of us to improve these skills in these difficult times. As South Africa faces the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, middle-managers, whose work centres on leading and supporting others, will once again find themselves giving more attention to their direct reports, leaving very little time and energy for themselves. 

Organisations should provide middle-managers with the training and support necessary to help them effectively lead their teams in the future world of work. Middle-managers that feel well-trained and supported by top management find managing and leading their teams during the pandemic both rewarding and challenging. I have come across middle-managers who have done an incredible job leading their teams since the beginning of the pandemic. Often, however, those they report to tend to forget that they are people too. They are struggling with the same challenges as other employees — childcare issues while working from home, financial anxiety, caring for loved ones who are unwell, worrying about when they will get vaccinated or coping with stress and anxiety about the current state of the world.

Leaders who have middle-managers as direct reports should, in addition to regular team meetings, create safe spaces for their middle-managers to share their personal challenges and constraints. Such safe spaces require leaders to take the lead, be vulnerable and share their own challenges and constraints. In addition, all leaders should invest in their personal development, practice self-care, and seek support when things get too much. Finally, middle-managers must prioritise their own well-being so that they can continue leading their teams with the resilience required of them during this time.  

For information on the Building Resilience, Improving Stress Management, and Coping with Adversity GIBS Masterclass, click here

This article was written by Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) faculty member, financial wellness coach, and founder of Thrive Financial Wellness, Dr Frank Magwegwe.  DM/BM  


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