I had originally started this as a post about burnout and management and how burnout was a problem created by management that was blamed on workers. That point is still valid, and one I’ve made before, but the specific issue I was getting to was that remote work is fertile ground for burnout because of managerial overreach. To be as abundantly clear: burnout is caused by bad work conditions, bad management, and lousy pay. It can happen to management, but it is also something that occurs predominantly because of management.
I then wanted to detail how remote work naturally leads to burnout due to the blurred lines between home and work and how this is a problem that’s naturally grown because of the overreach of companies.
This led me to a particular article from the BBC - that millennial managers are burning out - and it is truly awful. Middle management as a whole has no reason to exist in most organizations, and this article, in its wrongheaded understanding of how actual offices work, includes one of the funniest quotes to put immediately before a story about a middle manager’s stress:
Shilpa Panchmatia, a London-based business growth coach, says millennials have also seen the rise of a technology-driven culture where “work follows us everywhere at all times”, as well as “the absolute collapse of boundaries between work and life”. And even before the pandemic added extra stress, she notes, millennials may have been more susceptible to burnout than other generations.
This specific point is one that I want to hammer home - millennial workers have entered a workforce where they are perpetually “on.” This is why remote work burns people out - because for corrupt, poisonous workplaces, it’s a natural extension of the digital intrusion of the modern office into our lives. Bad workplaces will constantly bug you - inside and outside of work - and a shitty company working remotely will still be a shitty company.
Now, you might read that quote and think that this is a workplace piece that finally gets it, one where they finally see the matrix - that workers are the victims of corporate overreach through the ubiquity of smartphones and always-available internet.
Wrong! This is a piece about how middle managers are the real victims in their workers’ burnout.
The pandemic intensified work-related stressors of all kinds, and millennial middle managers caught some of the worst of it. The transition to remote work made the most basic aspect of their job – the day-to-day management of employees – much more difficult. At the same time, responsibilities for employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing soared, and many middle managers found themselves struggling to keep their direct reports from burning out.
But, as Lea found, reducing team members’ stress can mean placing more stress on yourself. She says she ended up taking on work from her direct reports.
“They’d say, ‘we’re overloaded, we’re burnt out’, and I knew it was on me. I’d take on extra work so my team wouldn’t burn out, because that’s a bad reflection on me. I had to have one-on-ones with everyone on a regular basis and they’d be like, ‘Someone in my family is sick, someone just died, I just went through a break-up’. Even though I was going through a lot too, knowing that they all had too much on their plate made me reluctant to ask anyone else to pick up slack.”
I’m trying - I’m really trying - to suppress my bile here, but it’s tough to do so when I see the person in question complaining that they are stressed because they have to do work that isn’t “managing people” or “talking to the higher-ups.”
Sadly, I can’t stay calm for long because I cannot stomach this quote:
Being responsible for alleviating other people’s burnout is a good way for middle managers to end up the burnt-out ones, and that starts a vicious cycle.
“When you yourself are burnt out, it makes it harder to support other people’s wellbeing,” he says. “An overworked, overburdened, stressed-out manager just lets the burnout continue. Once the middle managers go down, there’s no support network there.”
Agh, no! Fuck you! Ah! I can’t take this! I’m so pissed off I could scream! No! Screw you! If a middle manager has an actual reason to exist, something that I do not believe they do, their core job description is to support people’s well-being. That is the literal point of being a manager, the actual reason managers exist, the very definition of management, which is to manage people, which involves managing their stress.
The person in question, Lea, claims that she “[doesn’t] feel passionate about managing people, and [had to] learn that the hard way.” Like so many people, she became a manager because it sounded nice and paid more, then apparently didn’t want to manage anyone or do any work. While I’m being a little unkind - she takes care of a parent while doing work, which is incredibly draining on a person - her actual job appears to mostly be delegating to other people, which means she is simply part of a chain - a chain that does not need to exist if she is not responsible for alleviating or reorganizing said work to make it so that people aren’t burned out.
My frustration here is two-fold:
Burnout is a problem caused by bad management, and this person is claiming that they are burned out because they have to hear about other people’s problems.
This piece turns managers into burnout victims, explicitly blaming the workers…for burning out their managers.
It’s a truly insidious piece - one that is precisely engineered to give managers an excuse to feel both important and victimized - that also fails to dedicate a single word to what it is these people do all day. It includes the classic l assumption that managers have a reason to exist while also attempting to make them feel good about the fact that their jobs appear to be delegating other people to do work, sympathizing with them when they have to take things off the plate of their burned-out underlings.
Despite (or maybe it’s because?) not appearing to have a real job, middle managers are miserable, according to research from SHRM, due to dealing with things like…scheduling?
"Across industries, from retail to hospitality to health care, the arduous task of scheduling falls to managers, who have to synchronize individual schedules and often assign shifts without knowing associates' availability," said WorkJam CEO and president Steven Kramer. "By migrating this process onto a digital workplace platform, employers can put the power in the hands of the associates [and] … are freed from this burden."
Boohoo. Sorry, but if you’re a manager and get depressed because your job requires you to sort schedules, I recommend using Google calendar’s shared calendars feature. Also:
"Many middle managers have not been in their industries for their entire careers," he noted. "Therefore, they could be trying to learn the industry, do their jobs and stay on top of their craft, all at the same time. Anything that companies can do to invest in learning also shows their commitment [to] and confidence in those managers."
How about not promoting people who don’t know what they’re doing to management and not managing people who know what they’re doing with people that are still learning?
Managers are responsible for creating burnout when they should be accountable for dealing with it. A great manager is someone who controls the flow of information and work and distributes it equitably and thoughtfully and empowers those under them to do said work to a high quality. If someone is burned out, that is a failure of a manager and an organization, and if a manager is burned out, while it’s tempting to blame those under them (if you’re a skesis from the Dark Crystal), you can only blame the organization or the manager themselves.
So I have a straightforward solution: fire every single manager. Fire them all. If someone’s job is taking orders from one person and giving them to someone else, that is not a job, that is a conveyer belt, and they should be fired, and their position should be deleted from the organization. Once you’ve done that, you should calculate how many managers are assigned to each person, and if there are less than ten people for each manager, you should fire that manager. The ideal ratio of manager to worker is 15-20, and I would argue that most organizations could easily eradicate 75% of their managers and get similar results.
Do you know how workers have to constantly prove that they’re “worth keeping”? Do the same with managers. Ask them what they do all day and what that does for the company, and if it doesn’t sound good, kick their asses out.
This may seem radical, but I can think of exactly one manager I’ve had in my life that actually had a positive contribution to my career. If middle managers are getting burned out, it’s because they don’t have a real reason to exist and only exist as a form of an organizational cog doing busywork masquerading as “management.” As I said before, management has become a title rather than a discipline, poorly trained-for and executed in so many organizations that bad managers have become simply part of the pain points of work. I can’t think of a situation where a manager was the difference-maker due to them managing someone else.
You may think, “but we need a manager!” to which I say, “do you?” If you’re a small organization, you may need one person to act on your behalf when you’re not around, but for the most part, “manager” is not a real job. There’s research that shows that good managers make a difference, and plenty of research that says that bad management burns people out. If you feel like you need someone else to help with strategy, hire one manager, just one, and start from there.
Also…stop promoting people to manager. Management should not be a reward or something that someone “deserves,” but a skill that someone should demonstrate their ability to do rather than be thrown into. We should not have people who’s only job is to manage - they should have other things they have to do, as management, as a whole, is not as time-consuming as many managers make it out to be. A manager should be able to tell you what they do all day, and give you actual things that they did rather than things someone else did that they packaged up - and a manager that takes other people’s work and claims it’s their own should be fired.
If you’re a manager reading this and you feel like saying something like “uh, actually my job IS work,” please do not comment on this unless you are willing to put down what your average day looks like, and be prepared, candidly, to get roasted in the comments by people who know you’re full of it. If you’re so self-conscious about management that you feel that it needs defending, you are part of the problem - you are defending a broken ideal that was formed by people who don’t work for people who don’t work.
If you want to fix burnout in organizations, start with a mass-firing of managers. If someone’s job has “manager” at the end, they should have to justify their position at the company with real work rather than “I manage a team.” I am sure that within some organizations there are people that have the title of “manager” that actually do stuff, but I am not confident that is the majority.
Management is a skill, and a discipline, and something that done well can help both the organization and the worker. The problem is that corporations often incentivize the theft of labor by management over empowering the success of the worker - because they promote and hire people that enjoy standing on the backs of others rather than seeing them succeed too. If a manager’s only job is to tell people what to do and package their work up for the boss, they should be fired along with the person who chose to hire them.