Companies have asked a lot of managers during the last year.
Team leaders have been tasked with keeping subordinates motivated and productive in the midst of a global pandemic, all while maintaining a steady presence as the ground has shifted beneath them. They’ve not only had to manage their teams, but also the shift to remote work, the vitally important conversations around race and equality this year has prompted, and the impact the pandemic has had on their personal lives.
Recently published research quantifies the impact of the pandemic on managers’ mental health in its early months. Researchers from Germany, Australia, and the US surveyed almost 650 managers in 49 countries last May to assess their levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and the major contributing risk factors. The age, income, work status of the managers, as well as the level of instability at their companies, were all seen as predictors of of those conditions.
But one factor was consistently cited as a risk factor for all three: the amount of “illegitimate tasks” managers reported having to take on as a result of the pandemic. These were tasks that weren’t necessarily reflected in the job description of the managers, but were either considered by the managers to be unreasonable, that is, below or above their experience level, or unnecessary.
As one of the study authors, Dr. Lorenz Graf-Vlachy of the ESCP Business School in Berlin, wrote in the London School of Economics Business Review blog this week:
The sudden shift to remote work and the substantial disruptions of work processes in the earlier phases of the pandemic likely caused a lot of work that was not commensurable with managers’ view of their own responsibilities. When the assistant is no longer in the room next door, managers might have to perform menial tasks themselves all of a sudden. When remote work makes delegation harder, managers’ might feel that they had to “micromanage” their subordinates more than before. Also, support structures in managers’ personal lives might have crumbled.
People’s working lives are likely to get more complicated in the next year, as companies consider to what degree they will allow hybrid work, and how they will manage the return to offices. Implicit in these considerations is an expectation that managers know how to navigate the nuances of fluid work situations, which can be vulnerable to tricky power dynamics that directly impact people’s ability to succeed at their jobs.
It’s time to reflect those expectations in people’s job descriptions, and have a frank conversation about whether these tasks are “legitimate” or not.
“Leaving managers, often some of the organization’s most expensive and impactful people, alone with illegitimate tasks may backfire,” writes Graf-Vlachy. “Not only may managers themselves suffer mental health consequences, but if mental health issues affect their leadership work, this may have substantial negative impacts on subordinates, too.”
Companies can work with managers to identify these tasks, researchers advise, and figure out if they need to be reassigned, automated, delegated, or even reframed. As an example, managers were forced by the pandemic to think about the interplay between the personal and professional lives of employees in ways they hadn’t before. This may have seemed like an unreasonable or excessive demand for some managers. One year on, companies have the opportunity to formalize this task in a positive way, and coach managers on how to continue empathetically supporting the work-life goals of their employees.
These considerations could go a long way to improving how managers are feeling, and hopefully how their employees perform as a result.