The loneliness of mid-level managers

Mid-level managers work in constant contact with people, and it is they who are exposed to loneliness in the workplace. Why is this happening?

The loneliness of mid-level managers

Mid-level managers function in continuous interaction with other people: their own team, their superiors, and often directly with customers. Paradoxically, though, they are the ones who are susceptible to experiencing... loneliness in the workplace. Why is that? How does this impact the company? What are the ways to prevent this phenomenon?

Loneliness in the workplace

The problem of workplace loneliness, of course, doesn’t affect only managers. Because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – and post-pandemic changes in the nature and models of work – this issue needs to be addressed regularly at every level of the organization. For managerial staff, the problem proves to be particularly complex. To make matters worse, managers often fail to address it themselves.

Alarmingly, up to 50% of middle managers report experiencing loneliness in the workplace. However, precise data are still lacking, probably because members of this group interpret this feeling as a sign of professional inadequacy [1]. Of course, such a belief is unfounded, to say the least. The reasons may not necessarily lie within the managers themselves, but rather in the organization’s approach to their roles and responsibilities.

Who are mid-level managers?

Mid-level managers are often regarded as a ‘bridge’ linking corporate strategy with the operational level. In essence, it is through their mediation that decisions are translated into actual actions. To fulfil such duties, mid-level managers need both comprehensive knowledge of the company’s operations and a profound understanding of the corporate strategic vision. At the same time, they need the ability to communicate both of them.

Middle managers are those who contribute directly to improving the efficiency and quality of work, the motivation and development of employees, and the atmosphere in the team. Their role is pivotal from the organization’s perspective. These claims are supported by numbers. Companies that prioritize effective middle management are 33% more profitable and 45% more innovative [2]. So it’s reasonable to conclude that the robust ‘middle level’ of the organizational hierarchy serves as the core of the entire business. Consequently, it should deserve special attention.

Challenges at the middle management level

However, it seems that even with ‘special attention’ the issue remains unresolved. The sense of loneliness is not the only problem at hand. Members of the company’s middle management are particularly susceptible – more so than other employees – to the risk of burnout, work-life imbalance, and elevated levels of stress and anxiety [3].

Another challenge is associated with the stereotypical perception of the role of mid-level management. Very often, and erroneously, that role is reduced to a kind of ‘waiting room’ before advancement to a higher level [4]. Consequently, even if managers are happy with their position in the corporate structure, they may experience a sense of alienation, which can directly contribute to feelings of loneliness.

Mid-level managers are mostly seen as intermediaries. Their creative contributions to projects and impact on innovation often go unrecognized [2]. Treating their role in such a manner, both by superiors and subordinates, only intensifies the sense of being misunderstood and undervalued.

Another issue lies in the perception of middle managers by supervisors: not as integral members of the team, but rather as liaisons with team members. Consequently, managers see their relationship with their superiors as one-sided, encountering indifference from the ‘top’ [1]. Worse still, this approach effectively alienates the manager from the ‘team’. Meanwhile, psychologists stress the importance of a sense of belonging [5]. If managers don’t identify with either ‘us, the management’ or ‘us, the specialists,’ they feel excluded, which results in loneliness, frustration, and a decline in self-esteem.

This frustrating lack of support and understanding is also seen in their exclusion from competence development programs. Studies show that middle managers have alarmingly low scores in the area of self-development [6]. Their ability to enhance their competencies is further hindered by their superiors who, by relegating mid-level managers to administrative roles, fail to recognize their significant contribution to driving innovation and change [4].

Loneliness among managers – potential causes:

  • outdated and stereotypical perception of the role of mid-level managers,

  • lack of company support with improving work-life balance and handling stressors,

  • inadequate support from superiors,

  • reduction of managers’ opportunities to make a creative contribution to the company’s operations,

  • limited access to opportunities for self-development,

  • misunderstanding or downplaying their role in the organization.

What are the consequences of managers feeling lonely?

Put simply, they’re as important as the managers’ roles in the company. It’s important to note that feelings of loneliness and frustration experienced by managers quickly trickle down to their teams, with an impact on stress levels, creativity, interpersonal relationships, and employee turnover [1]. That’s why it’s often said that “employees join companies but leave managers”. However, looking at the big picture, one might say that employees tend to leave companies that don’t prioritize their managerial staff.

Let’s not forget that mid-level management comprises people of talent that may opt to depart from the company. Feelings of loneliness can significantly impact this decision. It’s no coincidence that experts attribute the phenomenon of the ‘great resignation’ directly to the absence of a sense of community in companies [7].

The loneliness experienced by managers can also impact the company’s reputation as an employer. According to the 2022 data released by the Polish Academy of Sciences, as many as 44% of employees who feel socially connected in the workplace are inclined to recommend their company as a good employer. Among those who report feeling lonely, the percentage is only 21% [8]. It’s also crucial to recognize that managers usually possess extensive professional experience, so their wide network of contacts plays a significant role in shaping opinions about the company.

The frustration that accompanies loneliness also has a tangible impact on the quality work. Managers are no exception. But they hold a unique position in that their work is vital not just for their teams, but also for interacting with customers, adapting the company to market trends, implementing strategies, and ensuring effective communication [5]. This highlights the importance of addressing this topic – not only from a human standpoint but also from a business perspective.

Loneliness among managers – potential consequences:

  • decline in employee motivation,

  • negative effect on the team atmosphere, potentially resulting in talent attrition,

  • decline in quality and innovation of work,

  • weakening of the company’s image and straining customer relations,

  • deterioration of the company’s internal communications,

  • reduced ability of the company to adapt to changes.

What can organizations do to change the situation?

1. Appreciation

Experts emphasize that it’s important to shift away from viewing mid-level managers solely in terms of ‘waiting for a promotion’ and instead recognize their role in its own right [4]. Top executives should extend the same level of care to their managers as the managers provide to specialists – by treating them as valued members of the team rather than just liaisons with the team [1].

2. Self-improvement

Companies should strengthen the competencies of mid-level managers, thereby building their confidence as leaders. Training, collaboration with experts, and access to the latest knowledge – all of these should be readily available to managers. To improve work-life balance, a good option to explore is online training courses with access to content at any time and from any location.

3. Inclusion

Experiencing a tangible impact on the team and the tasks at hand reduces feelings of loneliness [1]. This underscores the importance of involving managers in strategic decision-making processes rather than confining them to the role of intermediaries. At the same time, it’s essential to eliminate excessive bureaucracy that impedes the implementation of important, valuable, and self-improving tasks.

4. Lending an ear

The key to motivating managers is understanding their individual needs. Sometimes providing greater work flexibility, more challenging tasks, or opportunities for personal development or pursuing their own projects can significantly improve their sense of agency and impact within the company [4].

5. Tackling the problem

The issue of loneliness of managers should be included in every organization’s list of topics to address [1]. On a broader scale, companies must permanently incorporate wellbeing into their operations. In fact, this applies not only to middle management but to all employees. Carefully chosen measures (such as access to psychologists and promotion of knowledge about healthy lifestyles) should be integral components of a well-designed wellbeing strategy. Adopting a holistic approach to the issue, along with an appreciation of individual needs, will yield the best results.

Useful tools for the company

MultiLife – an online platform that provides employees with practical opportunities for development, including managerial competencies. MultiLife offers courses and apps designed to promote a healthy lifestyle, along with access to specialists including psychologists, nutritionists, and personal trainers. Hence, the platform serves as an excellent support tool for the implementation of the wellbeing strategy.

MyBenefit – an advanced cafeteria module with various functions for employee recognition and soliciting their feedback through convenient online surveys.

MultiSport – a solution promoting a healthy lifestyle with access to more than 5,000 facilities, 40 different sports and recreational activities, and online training options.

Solutions for companies from Benefit Systems – professional support in developing and implementing a wellbeing strategy for every company.