You’ve taken the leap from front-line individual contributor to professional manager. How do you feel? Proud? Excited?
How about depressed?
The last emotion might strike you as odd, but it’s not unlikely. According to a new study, middle managers are the most likely people in an organization to suffer from depression. The study, led by Seth Prins, a doctoral student at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, was recently published online in Sociology of Health & Illness. The researchers examined more than 20,000 full-time workers across a variety of roles. For their sample, they utilized 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey of Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESRAC), and narrowed that down to a set of 21,859 full-time employees. The researchers then segmented those individuals into four categories: owners, managers, supervisors, and workers.
Owners were defined as self-employed individuals who earned more than $71,500 (the 90th income percentile). Managers
respondents who identified as an executive, administrative, or managerial role and possessed more than a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Supervisors likewise identified as executive, administrative, or managerial but did not possess a bachelor degree. (The bachelor’s degree was chosen as a proxy for skills in an attempt to separate higher-level management roles from lower-level supervisor positions). Lastly, workers were defined by various occupations in the NESRAC not equated with the above categories.
With their groups defined, the researchers then estimated the prevalence of any lifetime or previous 12-month anxiety or depression and then calculated the odds of each category experiencing anxiety or depression. After controlling for a variety of factors, the researchers found that supervisors and managers had the highest likelihood of depression, with 19% and 16% rate of depression respectively. Owners and workers had much lower rates of depression, just 11% and 12% respectively. As for anxiety, the story was similar, with owners and workers at rates of 2% and 5% while supervisors and managers were at elevated rates of 11% and nearly 7%.
The Prins study is the newest in a line of research suggesting that managers are more likely to suffer depressive symptoms. When Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman looked across 320,000 employees and identified the employees with the lowest engagement and commitment scores, they found that middle managers were disproportionally represented in the bottom 5%. “When we examined the demographic characteristics of these employees, we found … that they could best be described as those ‘stuck in the middle of everything,’” they wrote. “For the most part, these unhappy people were steady, good performers who’d been in the organization for some time but appeared to have gotten lost in the shuffle.”
But depression doesn’t have to come automatically with a private office (assuming your organization has private offices, a lack of which might also be contributing to your depression). While the nature of management work might be triggering depressive symptoms, your promotion is not a prediction of future anxiety. The researchers didn’t offer specific recommendations for morose middle managers, but the research itself offers some clues for improving affect.
The first is to stay connected to the front-line, even if your promotion means you’re removed from it. Research suggests that purpose, specifically purpose derived from getting to see the impact of your work, is a potent motivator. If interacting with customers, or at least getting to see that impact on the larger world, keeps you motivated, then don’t let the demands of your new office keep you locked inside of it.
The second is to get a clear picture early on about how much decision-making authority your new role comes with. While the study suggests that a lack of authority may be one trigger of depressive symptoms, that effect is no doubt compounded when that lack of authority comes as a surprise while trying to meet the demands of the new role. Get clear on what you can and cannot change, and keep your focus on things inside your span of control.
Lastly, there are important implications here for those higher up – the “owners” (or senior executives) who can change their organizations. This is a good reminder that bestowing resources and authority in equal measure matters, and that connecting job demands with the real impact on customers is always a motivator.
And new managers might even find some cold comfort in this research. If your new job feels hard … that’s because it is.