Even without the cloud of COVID-19 and the isolation of quarantine, company managers are often under extreme stress, according to a recent report from ZenBusiness.

Employees (76%) and workers (58%) are quick to weigh in, with bosses described as “toxic,” and staff saying they’d trust a stranger more than their boss.

Often stuck between the proverbial rock (upper management) and a hard place (those they supervise), bosses infrequently get to voice their own concerns, as surveys tend to focus on stress-indicators of employees and how company managers should contend with moderating office culture.

Nearly 1,000 people in the US, a mix of managers and subordinates were surveyed, their stress levels compared to how employees perceive them, and ZenBusiness said the results were surprising, and revelatory.

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While 24% of managers described their job as extremely stressful (62% said moderately and 13% said slightly), only 14% of staff believed managers’ jobs are extremely stressful (and 65% opted for moderately, and 21% as slightly).

Managers said the most stressful parts to being a manager were maintaining work-life balance, time management, managing an increased workload, managing employee conflicts, managing increased responsibility, disciplining subordinates, balancing individual and managerial responsibilities, meeting increased performance expectations, motivating or maintaining morale, prioritizing responsibilities, emotional confrontation with subordinates, and establishing boundaries.

Image: ZenBusiness

Stress solutions

While the most common way to reduce stress for managers is to take a break or walk, managers cite vacation days as the most effective way to abate stress.

Image: ZenBusiness

Commiserating with managerial peers (56%) offered managers the greatest support, followed by upper management (26%) and subordinates (22%). But subordinates (38%) believed they were almost on par with their managers’ peers (45%) for lending an ear. Subordinates had even less faith (17%) in upper management easing their managers’ stress.

“It’s clear that they find solace in hearing what those at the same level have to say about the job, so these findings may resonate with how they’re feeling and motivate them to adjust accordingly at work,” said Janna Wilkinson, vice president of SEO for ZenBusiness.

Half of managers surveyed reported taking no mental-health days, and the average for the other half was two mental health days in the past year.

Half of managers also said being a manager was more rewarding than stressful (33% of non-managers agreed), with the other half saying being a manager was more stressful than rewarding (67% of nonmanagers agreed).

“With a 50/50 split over whether managers believe their place of authority is more stressful or more rewarding, it’s crucial that issues are addressed, sooner rather than later,” Wilkinson said. “Managers should feel supported by upper management and subordinates, so, hopefully, the rewarding feeling becomes the overwhelming majority.”

The more employees, the greater the stress

Level of managerial stress, the survey said, directly correlated with the number of employees that managers supervised and the percentage of those who are extremely stressed:

  • 1-5 employees 16%

  • 6-10 employees 18%

  • 11-30 employees 26%

  • 31+ employees 44%

Research showed that “the lucky number seven, plus or minus a few” was “the sweet spot” for a managers to employee ratio.

The more employees a manager supervised the higher the percentage of “more stress, less rewarding.”

Manager job satisfaction was surveyed, for overall, work-life balance, and salary, each evaluated, in the categories of extreme, moderate and slight. Skeptical workers deemed managers 10% less likely to be severely stressed than managers would describe themselves.

Employees underestimated the stress of typical managerial responsibilities, which include disciplining subordinates, managing a work-life balance, and managing conflicts. But those employees overestimated “the stress of prioritizing responsibilities, managing an increased workload, and meeting increased performance expectations.”

The convergence of home and work stress

With the COVID-19 shutdown, Heather Paunet, senior vice president of product management at Untangle, said, “It was an adjustment to work and manage a team” while not in the office.

Juggling new challenges at home while keeping contact with staff was an adjustment, Paunet said.

Jack Mannino, CEO of nVisium, noted that “With schools going remote and limited childcare options, prioritizing your children’s needs, while being available and responsive to your team, and client’s needs are challenging.”

Mannino said interruption from kids during meetings should be tolerated and accepted, “so stop apologizing for it when it happens.”

Stress apparently has an upwardly mobile trajectory, with the highest number of subordinates (55%) discounting the stressful reverberations of upper management on their managers (who credit 40% of upper management with their stress). Managers said 37% of their stress is from subordinates, with the remaining 23% cite other, same-level managers as contributors to stress.

The report noted that “The most stressful thing for a manager was also the most overlooked by their employees: maintaining a work-life balance,” and “nonmanagers seriously underestimated the amount of stress they caused in the life of their managers.”

Maintain stoicism

Most managers said it’s necessary to hide stress and emotion from employees (89% of women and 79% of men). Yet, there is also a disconnect; 11% of managers believe subordinates are wholly unsympathetic to their stress, but only 5% of nonmanagers cited they’re not sympathetic, indicating managers were more than twice as likely to cite employees as “not at all sympathetic.”

Managers carry the burden

Half of managers said being a manager was more rewarding than stressful (33% of nonmanagers agreed), with the other half saying being a manager was more stressful than rewarding (67% of nonmanagers agreed).

Wilkinson added: “These findings imply that managers feel they must take the heat or responsibility, thus causing stress, so their employees don’t have to. Overall, stress-related cognition cannot be measured with self-report methods, because these methods deliberate processing of the assessed construct.”

“Keeping good communications open has been key for me to ensure that our team still works well together,” Paunet said, adding that her team had always been in the office, “so I saw that there was an initial feeling of isolation and loss of togetherness. Now, we’ve figured out how to meet often, and keep in touch, using video meetings, Slack channels and taking the time to ping each other as needed. I no longer feel stressed!”

Additionally, those polled, aged 18 to 78 (with a mean of 37), included 48% who identified as female, 52% who identified as male and less than 1% identified as a gender not on ZenBusiness’ survey.

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Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto