How can HR help middle managers handle stress?

People professionals should look out for signs of strain before they become burnt out, says Tim Heard

Tim Heard

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that 1.8 million workers in Great Britain are suffering a work-related illness, with stress, depression and anxiety making up around half of cases.

An estimated 17 million working days were lost as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021-22, making up more than half of all working days lost from work-related ill-health.

In 2020, Deloitte estimated that the costs to employers of poor mental health in the workplace are substantial. Using conservative assumptions, it estimated a total annual cost of up to £45bn, comprising £7bn in absence costs, £27-29bn in presenteeism costs and £9bn in costs of staff turnover. 

A CIPD blog – Health and well-being: middle managers feel the squeeze – also says 25 per cent of those suffering from workplace stress are middle managers. It is thought that middle managers are more at risk of workplace stress than any other employees because of the nature of being just that: in the middle.

Middle managers have to deal with pressure from all directions. They have pressure from above to meet targets as well as indirect pressure managing their teams in terms of pastoral care and encouraging good performance. This can be physically and mentally exhausting and, in some cases, if it is left unchecked, can lead to burnout. This can mean that the employee is unable to function in their job. Ceridian’s 2022 Pulse of Talent report found that more than three quarters (79 per cent) of UK workers have experienced burnout, with 35 per cent reporting high or extreme levels.

As HR teams and professionals, it is important that we can spot the signs of burnout to stop it from getting to the point where that individual has to be absent from work. Typical signs of burnout include the inability to switch off from work, insomnia, rumination and irritability, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, fatigue and frequent illness.

Burnout will present as stress at home and work in similar ways. The ‘fight or flight’ analogy is often used to describe overwhelm and feelings of stress. ‘Fight' is where the individual might become irritable, angry, argumentative, look stressed, can't sleep and have racing thoughts as adrenaline pumps around the body. Conversely, stress can also lead to the 'flight' reaction where the individual wants to withdraw, sleeps more, doesn't want to engage in social activities, becomes quiet, just gets on with their work or doesn't want to actively engage in conversations. Their fear at this time is that engaging will lead to further problems or something else they have to deal with.

We need to ensure that our middle managers are under the right amount of stress so that they can thrive in their roles. Too little stress can lead to lethargy and a lack of engagement, whereas too much stress will lead to tiredness, exhaustion and eventually burnout. Learn to recognise when your middle managers are under too much stress. For example, you might see an increase in anxiety levels leading to fight (irritability), flight (avoidance of tasks) or freeze (procrastination).  

Being a middle manager is a difficult job. There is a need to constantly switch between looking up and looking down. For those in senior roles with middle managers below them, it is important to check in with them actively instead of waiting until a problem becomes visible.

It is not uncommon for middle managers to want to prove how capable they are and not show weakness. For example, they may need to perform for a promotion. The risk is that things start to go wrong because no one is looking after them. Asking for help can feel like an additional thing on one's plate, so regularly scheduled one to ones to talk not just about work but about life in general with a pastoral hat on is really important. This will make the middle manager feel appreciated, give them a confidence boost and spur them on to want to perform well.

It is important that middle managers are not afraid to say ‘no’ to things. They do have a unique level of stress as the bridge between their own teams and the senior leaders above. They should be encouraged to have uninterrupted time in the day to think and plan.

It is also important that they are given the opportunity to keep work separate from home life. Stress and risk of burnout will increase if they don't turn off the work tap before it overflows and interrupts their time at home. Encouraging them to take up physical or enjoyable activities in the week will ease their stress; for example, exercise, cooking, taking a walk in the park or reading. Building this into their work day could be helpful. 

Consistent communication with your teams as an HR professional is key to ensuring you can spot the signs they may be dealing with stress. This might be particularly important as well in the context of women at different times of their menstrual cycle. This can be a tricky topic for some men to discuss with female counterparts, but the monthly fluctuations in mood and energy levels can have a dramatic impact on how one manages stress at different times. 

Recent research has shown that compassionate leadership can positively impact productivity, employee retention and customer retention, profitability and financial performance. It also supports strategic advantage in innovation, service quality, collaboration, retaining talented people, employee and customer engagement and adaptability to change.

Understanding the unique stress that middle management can suffer and how to notice and treat behaviours associated with it is ultimately the key to ensuring your business continues. A happy, healthy workforce equals a happy, healthy business.

Tim Heard is a business psychologist and MHFA instructor at HCML