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Caught in the middle: Mental Health of middle managers

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About three years back a study about concentrations of fecal glucocorticoids in nine female Barbary macaques caught the imagination of science and management bloggers/ journalists.  The study was more methodological in nature, trying to see whether average concentrations of fecal glucoroticoids are a better measure of stress or those collected immediately after and correlated with some aspect of behavior a better measure, but what caught the fancy of the blogoshpere was a small paragraph embedded towards the end:

Female Barbary macaques have a despotic dominance style, characterized by asymmetrical dyadic interactions, often determined through the use of ritualized threats and displacement, as opposed to direct aggression (Preuschoft et al.,1998 ). When adrenal activity was compared between individuals according to their relative dominance rank, we found a non-linear relationship,with mid-rank females tending to exhibit higher,and often more variable fGCM concentration than high-rank, or lower-rank females.

Now to understand the above, we have to digress a bit into the physiology and psychology of stress. Macaques have a hierarchical social structure and use aggression/ threats and displacement to seal their position in the hierarchy.  These aggressive behaviors cause stress. Stress manifests as heightened activity of HPA axis leading to more glucocorticoids in the body (and feces).  Bottom line, you can measure how stressed a macaque is by analyzing the glucocorticoid metabolite in the feces.

And what did they found? Tangential to their main hypothesis, they found that those macaques in the middle of the rank dominance were more stressed than those either high up the hierarchy or at the bottom.

And what are the most common asymmetrical power structures in human context—-its the workplace where power games are not too uncommon.  The authors themselves extended the analogy to middle managers (not in the article , but in their press briefs) and equated the ambition of middle managers, and the consequent conflict with both superiors and subordinates, as one of the reasons for the stress that middle mangers feel.

But is it really the case that middle managers are more stressed than those at the bottom of the hierarchy or those at the top? I have been a middle manager myself so should know, but instead of using anecdotes lets look at research again, this time from a study surveying nearly 22,000 full time workers.

What the researchers found was that middle managers were indeed more likely to be depressed or anxious than their top-ranking or bottom-of-the-pile counterparts. The study divided workers into owners/leaders; managers/ supervisors and workers and found elevated rates of depression and anxiety in middle managers and supervisors as compared to say workers and owners.

Of course one can speculate as to what factors may underlie such a state of affairs; but putting the two researches together, one can see that part of the reason may be the power dynamics that is involved in being a  boss as well as a subordinate at the same time. When the boss asks and puts pressure for something that is not possible in the given amount of time/ resources, the aggression is typically displaced to the subordinates and leads to conflicts and bad blood at both ends.  The middle manger is truly caught in the middle.

What is the way out? Being more assertive to superiors (without being aggressive/ ambitious/ stabbing-in-the-back kind of person) and not displacing aggressive impulses towards subordinates is one thing that comes to mind. The other is totally to stop seeing oneself as a boss or a powerful person and using more influence and persuasion to get things done rather than use authority or control ….this way you detach from the power and dominance hierarchy mindset.  Lastly create a fun climate for both your subordinates and a delightful experience for your managers. We can learn from macaques and chimpanzees to be aggressive or we can learn from bonobos to be more playful and loving. The choice is ours (and has important consequence for our well-being) !

Yesterday, I had written about how relationships are important for workplace well-being; as middle managers that are caught between superiors, colleagues and subordinates we can either get overwhelmed by the hellishness of other people; or we can use these myriad relationships to satisfy our need of relatedness and making a broader impact on the world around us. The choice again is ours!

Unemployment better than holding a poor quality job?

Of course in financial terms, its always better to hold a ‘poor quality’ (we will define that term soon) job than being unemployed, especially in countries like India where there are no unemployment benefits; but the above question is posed in the context of your health….especially your mental health.

Its a well established dogma that unemployment is bad for mental health and those who lose a job are at risk of mental health problems. As compared to being unemployed, being employed is considered good for your mental health mainly due to  ‘higher income and access to resources, having a defined social role and purpose,  access to social support and networks, and time structure.’

However, one stream of research by Butterworth et al believes that we might have overlooked the crucial importance of  psychosocial quality of work when trying the disentangle the effects of employment and mental health. In particular they contest that while high quality jobs do provide the salutary benefits associated with being in the workforce, poor psychosocial quality jobs lead to worse outcomes  in terms of mental health than being or remaining unemployed.

Quick, answer these questions:

  1. Does your job place high demands on you and is complex/ stressful?
  2.  Do you lack control over your work or suffer from lack of autonomy?
  3. Do you feel insecure about your continued employment or job prospects?
  4. Do you get paid fairly for your work?

Assuming you are employed, the more you answered affirmatively to the above questions the more likely you are to be in a poor psychosocial quality job. The job may be paying you well and may come with all types of benefits but if you think (and if indeed it is the case) that your job is high on demand, low on control, low on security and low on perceived fair wage then that job is not good for your mental health.

As per longitudinal research done by Butterworth et al, there are many interesting relations between job status (being employed/ unemployed) and mental health.  For eg., being in a high quality job has the maximum benefits for mental health, followed by unemployment and the poor psychosocial quality jobs come last in terms of mental health.  They also looked at transitions. If you were unemployed and took up a low psychosocial quality job, say just to make ends meet , then your mental health is likely to go down. They didn’t look at the reverse transition, but perhaps one can assume that if someone was stuck in a poor quality job and became unemployed, then perhaps he/ she may get  a boost in mental health.

Why is this important? Given that economic demands and needs necessitate many to remain stuck in low quality jobs over unemployment, how can this new found knowledge help us? For starters, they can make more informed choices and decisions and be aware of what they are trading in for if they take a job or remain stuck in a job with poor pscyhosocial quality. Some may legitimately prefer a period of unemployment over such poor quality jobs especially if their mental health is at risk; while others who are indeed stuck in poor quality jobs can take more proactive measures to move to high quality jobs or take proactive steps to take care of their mental health.

More important are implications for leaders, managers, employers and policy makers. For policy makers and entrepreneurs, the current short sighted thinking that any type of job is better than unemployment has to be replaced with a more nuanced understanding that some features of good psychoscocial quality jobs are also to be emphasized over blind creation of new jobs.

Most important implications are for leaders and managers. What distinguishes a poor psychosocial quality job from a  high quality job are all psychological features that can be controlled. Managers and leaders can design and craft  jobs for their employees such that there is optimal fit between capabilities and job demands;  there is sufficient autonomy over what ,where, how and with whom to work; hiring is done realistically and with restraint so that there is enough perceived job security and lastly rewards are structured and made transparent in a manner that there is perceived equity in distribution of rewards (which is hard to achieve when CEO’s take a fat payout while layoffs are in progress in a firm).

The bottom line is that given the immense mental health costs of poor psychosocial work, which spirals into poor bottom line results for the organization,  it is a duty of all leaders and employers to ensure that work experience is of as high psychosocial quality as possible. Its not just good for the company its also the morally right thing to do.

So all you entrepreneurs out there, go ahead create jobs, but create jobs that lead to better mental health for all!