Why HR needs to focus on middle managers

Research from CIPD has highlighted the plight of the ‘squeezed’ middle manager. The UK Working Lives Report 2018 paints a picture of a cadre of managers who are often under extreme stress, juggling conflicting priorities and bearing the brunt of criticism from their leaders above and direct reports below.

The report, which aims to identify what ‘good work’ looks like, found that although middle managers reported high levels of job satisfaction, 30 per cent had workloads they describe as unmanageable while one in 20 describe being swamped by what they have to do. It points out that the relentless pressure managers (including HR) suffer can eventually take its toll, with 28 per cent of mid-level professionals saying their work negatively affects their mental health.

Clearly, an overstretched middle management has significant implications for business performance. Middle managers are on the front line of organisations attempts to become more agile and competitive – given their responsibility for managing teams, meeting targets and delivering key projects on time.

So what can HR practitioners do to help ease the pressure and ensure this vital group of employees don’t crumble under the strain?

1. Encourage a work-life balance mindset

The research found that 24/7 always-on cultures are seriously eroding the boundaries between manager’s work and personal lives. HR can support managers in finding a healthier work-life balance. Making flexible working the norm for everyone, rather than just for those with caring responsibilities, can do much to help managers juggle home and work priorities more effectively and can significantly reduce their stress levels. This will call for a cultural shift in some organisations, who still struggle to see the business benefits of a more flexible approach. Managers also need support in stepping above the day-to-day detail of their role in order to define priorities and decide what they personally need to do and what can be delegated to others.

2. Rethink job design

HR has a role to play in helping senior leaders take a more strategic approach to resourcing issues. It’s about helping the business understand what it can realistically expect of its people and finding new and more effective ways to organise work. Redefining the role of middle managers as drivers of productivity and engagement, rather than ‘work-horses’ who are expected to do everything, can also help the business ensure it gets the best out of its people and doesn’t burn out middle managers.

3. Let technology take the strain

Thanks to technological advances, there are now sophisticated systems available to automate core processes in pretty much every discipline from finance to customer relations. But while organisations are typically quick to adopt systems that impact their external operations, there are still a surprising number managing internal processes, such as HR, via time-consuming manual systems. HR systems can do a huge amount to take the pressure off middle managers, making it easier for them to manage annual leave, monitor absence, resource projects, improve performance and keep track of training and development. It takes the time-consuming admin away and allows them to concentrate on the more strategic aspects of their role.

4. Provide appropriate training

A worrying lack of access to training and development opportunities was one of the key findings to emerge from the CIPD survey. Middle managers tend to be somewhat overlooked when it comes to training in soft skills. There’s an expectation that because they have reached a certain level, they will automatically know how to manage their people effectively. The reality is that many struggle with this aspect of their role, especially if they have been promoted on the back of technical or specialist expertise. They need support in understanding how to give feedback, delegate effectively, improve productivity and generally keep their people motivated and engaged. Understanding how to manage conflict effectively was a core management skill that emerged from the survey – a task that takes up an inordinate amount of management time, causes stress all round and costs the business dearly.

5. Focus on mental health

Awareness of the extent of mental health issues in the general population has risen enormously in the past year, thanks to a number of high profile campaigns. As the CIPD survey has shown, too much pressure at work is one of the key factors having a negative impact on employee’s mental well-being – with mid-managers identified as the ones at most risk. In many organisations, there is still a stigma surrounding issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. HR needs to encourage and support the development of cultures where managers know it is OK to talk about the impact their role is having on them, without fear of negative consequences and where business leaders actively want to ensure they are creating conditions where employees at all levels can do great work.

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