2023 broke middle managers' spirit, caught between a disenchanted workforce and demanding execs

Whether squashed between two strangers on an airplane, roped into an argument, or sandwiched between your older and younger siblings, being in the middle isn’t always considered prime real estate. There’s no need to ask Malcom if it’s any fun—you can just ask your manager. 

The past year was a turning (and at times tipping) point in the white-collar workforce, which was rife with layoffs and return-to-office mandates. At the center of it all: the middle manager. The burned out second rung of leadership is the least satisfied with their job right now, according to Glassdoor’s 2024 Workplace Trends report.   

The strain that 2023 placed on middle management becomes starkly evident when looking at Glassdoor’s work-life balance ratings. While junior and senior employees reported consistent results, there was a “sharp drop” when it came to middle managers working for larger employers.

Part of it is a swing-back from a golden era a couple years ago, Glassdoor chief economist Aaron Terrazas tells Fortune. “Middle management was targeted in a wide range of layoff announcements in 2023, as companies sought to flatten their org structure—in tech, in finance, in consumer goods, and in healthcare,” he says. Consider Meta’s culling off the layers of managers as part of its “Year of Efficiency” or Intel slashing managers’ pay.

It’s all happening in the shadow of a pandemic-era boom of management roles that Terrazas says was a “result of the tight labor market of 2021 and 2022, as companies sought to reward upwardly mobile employees with promotions in lieu of within-role raises.” 

Indeed, there’s been a rise of “accidental managers” or bosses who were promoted without adequate training—82% of bosses fall into this group, per a U.K. survey of 4,500 workers and managers conducted by The Chartered Management Institute. Workers who think their manager is ineffective reported lower satisfaction in their job as well as lowers feelings of being valued and motivated than those who thought their bosses were competent. That could leave these managers floundering even more as tensions remain high between upper-level management and employees who are debating what the future of work should look like. 

Middle managers are at the precipice of leaving

No wonder middle managers (accidental or not) feel incredibly stressed out. Being the middle manager has never had a great rep; dealing with lower pay and more interpersonal conflicts than higher-ups, they’re often isolated from the rest of the staff. And return-to-office mandates have made this middle ground all the more shaky, as they struggle to implement such policies from the top and keep their direct reports happy. Middle managers in hybrid workforces feel the most disconnected from their company since they’re tasked with monitoring and catering to multiple individual needs, per a 2022 Gallup survey.

They might also be caught in the middle of executives’ fixation with monitoring employee output and a disenchanted workforce still reeling from their waning flexibility and stagnant wages. “By mid-2023, middle managers were clearly starting to feel the heat—both from above as senior leaders sought to increase worker productivity and from below as frontline employees increasingly felt overextended,” Terrazas explains.

While middle managers might be touted as the key to solving burnout among their workers since they’re the ones often in charge of setting expectations and a supportive culture, many of them feel they’re at the end of their rope themselves. Nearly half (46%) of middle managers reported that they were likely to quit within the year due to stress, according to a global survey of 3,400 people from the Workforce Institute at UKG conducted in early 2023. 

Glassdoor warns that the sharpening crisis doesn’t seem to be reversing in the coming year, which it deems a “risk” for employers.

“At many companies, good middle managers play a vital role: Taking high level corporate vision and translating it into tangible actions while channeling critical feedback across organizations,” says Terrazas. “In 2024, senior business leaders will need to focus on addressing these new stresses on middle managers—or risk losing them.”

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