The Stress of Being a Manager
- July 6th, 2020 09:00 am
Today, we’re going to walk a mile in shoes you may not normally wear to the office. Have you ever really thought about what it’s like to be the boss? Just the word itself conjures a pretty bad reputation: 76% of job seekers said they see their boss as “toxic,” and 58% of workers would trust a stranger more than their boss. But these statistics miss an obvious part of the story: the boss’s side.
We surveyed nearly 1,000 people currently employed in the U.S. – a healthy mix of managers and their subordinates – to see how well they understand one another. We compared managers’ reported stressors and stress levels against the perceptions of their employees, and what we found was pretty surprising.
If you’re having a difficult time with your boss, or even want to improve an already healthy relationship, you’ll want to keep reading. Managers can also start to understand how employees perceive them and discover where some misunderstandings stem from.
The More Employees You Supervise, The More Stressful the Job
First, we wanted to know how stressed managers were, and then we wanted to know how stressed employees thought their managers were. Even though the majority of managers weren’t severely stressed, their employees did grossly underestimate their hardships. Nearly a quarter of managers reported “severe stress” in the workplace, but their workers were 10 percentage points less likely to perceive them as such. Instead, workers more often thought their managers had just moderate (65%) or slight stress (21%).
One of the clearest indicators of managerial stress was an increasing number of employees. The stress a manager felt directly increased alongside the number of employees they supervised. The more employees a manager oversaw, the more stressed they felt at work. If you’ve attended business school or even taken a related course, you may have come across the phrase “span of control,” which refers to how many employees a manager should have directly reporting to him or her at a time. Research designates a sweet spot as “the lucky number seven, plus or minus a few.”
The data here certainly supports this definition, as those with 10 or fewer employees reported lower amounts of stress than those with 11 or more employees. Nearly half of managers with over 30 employees under their supervision reported severe stress at work. As expected, this stress impacted other areas of their lives: Moderately and severely stressed managers were less likely to feel satisfied with their job, salary, and even work-life balance than those who were only slightly stressed.
Maintaining Work-Life Balance is the Top Stressor for Managers
Once it became clear that nonmanagers underestimated the amount of severe stress their managers endured, the study started to dig into the why. We looked into specific aspects of the job that gave managers stress, as well as the aspects that employees presumed were difficult for them.
The most stressful thing for a manager was also the most overlooked by their employees: maintaining a work-life balance. Forty-five percent of managers felt stressed by this, but only 32% of nonmanagers could see it. The importance of a work-life balance cannot be underestimated: It’s known to make a person more engaged at work and better able to maintain relationships and happiness in and outside of the office.
Most nonmanagers thought the most stressful part of their supervisor’s job was managing the increased workload. Although 37% of managers agreed this was stressful, time management was more often the difficult part of the equation. According to Harvard Business Review, time management is often mentioned in helping a person rise the ranks to CEO. Even though CEOs have increased resources at their disposal, they experience an immense scarcity when it comes to time.
We also made sure to ask managers and nonmanagers what they thought the most stressful part of a manager’s job was. As it turns out, nonmanagers seriously underestimated the amount of stress they caused in the life of their managers. Instead, the majority of nonmanagers felt upper management gave their bosses the most anxiety. Managers were nearly equally likely to be stressed out by their subordinates and upper management.
Most Managers Say It’s Necessary to Hide Their Stress and Emotions
Our research also led us to wonder where these misconceptions stemmed from. Why do employees so often overlook both the sources and intensities of stress of their supervisors? The answer became clear once we started asking how managers deal with their emotions.
The majority of managers thought it necessary to hide both stress and other emotions from their employees. Although this may be driven by the accepted best practices of being a manager, we also noticed that managers felt they wouldn’t receive sympathy if their true emotions were revealed. Managers were more than twice as likely to think their employees would be “not at all sympathetic” to their stress. That said, nonmanagers might be underestimated here, as they were twice as likely to say they would be “extremely sympathetic” if their managers chose to reveal their emotions.
Gender roles also presented an interesting dichotomy. Female managers were 10 percentage points more likely than male managers to think hiding emotions was a necessary behavior. This may be because women are more harshly judged for showing emotions at work.
Managers Say Vacation Time was the Most Effective Way to Reduce Stress
Speaking only to managers, we wanted to know how they dealt with the stress they experienced. Even though nonmanager employees experience stress (83% of U.S workers are stressed), leadership’s ability to manage that stress can cause a trickle-down effect, impacting the company as a whole. Some experts even argue that the way a manager deals with stress can ruin the job for their employees.
So, how did managers alleviate their more anxious emotions? Most often, they took short breaks or walks. Even tiny breaks can ease the body and reboot the brain, but it wasn’t the most effective stress reliever managers shared. Instead, vacations really did the trick. Taking time off was the most effective method for diminishing stress according to 27% of managers, but it was utilized by less than a quarter of them. Fewer reported taking mental health days, and fewer still tried talking to their HR representatives for help.
Even managers who reported the highest levels of stress only took two mental health days over the course of a year. Half of all managers had never taken this kind of a day off, although many experts recommend taking at least one per quarter, regardless of employee rank.
The Less Employees a Manager Supervises, the More Likely They Were to Say Their Job was Rewarding
Thus far, our data has revealed that managers often experience stress that goes unnoticed, unshared, and underestimated by their employees, which led us to one last question: Is all the stress worth it? In other words, did managers find their experiences as leaders to be more rewarding or more stressful?
Managers were evenly split: Half thought the experience was rewarding, while half deemed the experience stressful. Essentially, it depended on the type of work environment. For instance, the number of employees a manager oversaw heavily impacted a manager’s description of the experience. Those managing five or fewer employees were 15 percentage points more likely than those with 31 or more employees to find their job rewarding. Once more employees were added to the mix, the scale began to tip from rewarding to stressful.
Nonmanagers were also highly likely to assume their managers had a more stressful experience.
Mutual Understanding in the Workplace
As the data proves, being a manager isn’t always easy. And as other studies show, being a nonmanager isn’t always a walk in the park, either. What can help, however, is mutual understanding, as our data also revealed a lack of understanding between the two, despite similar emotions. Stress and its management is important to understand and communication may be the key to building better relationships between employee and supervisor.
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We conducted a survey of 511 managers and 469 nonmanagers who were currently employed full time. Respondents were then asked to answer questions about their experiences managing employees or being managed.
Forty-eight percent of our respondents identified as female, 52% identified as male, and less than 1% identified as a gender not listed on our survey. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 78, with a mean of 37 and a standard deviation of 11.1.
It is possible that with more respondents from each demographic, we may have been able to gain better insight. The findings on this page rely on self-reporting and, as such, are susceptible to exaggeration or selective memory.
No statistical testing was performed. The claims listed above are based on means alone and are presented for informational purposes.
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