Middle managers and burnout: How hardiness could make a positive difference

The recent UK Working Lives survey, conducted by the CIPD, found middle managers to be increasingly squeezed and stressed. Unsurprisingly,

“Over stressed managers will not be focused on best managing their teams and will pass that stress down” – Peter Cheese, chief executive CIPD (May 2018)

This has a financial as well as human cost. In a 2014 study, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work concluded that the annual cost of burnout is an estimated 6 billion euros. This amount is made up of absenteeism, lost productivity, poor performance, and health and social care costs.

A Spanish study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, explores the factors that could help middle managers mitigate against burnout. The researchers, Juan-Carlos Calvo and Guadalupe Garcia, were particularly interested in middle managers as they believed past research had mainly focused on non-managers. This is compounded by the notion that,

“this is a group which has to ensure difficult working conditions and which has a propensity to suffer burnout”

The research

The researchers examined the relationship between structural empowerment and psychological empowerment and the extent to which hardiness might play a role in relation to burnout.

Structural empowerment was first identified by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the 1970s in her book Men and women of the corporation. It refers to the importance of having access to information, resources and support, as well as sufficient opportunities to learn.

In the mid 1990s, Gretchen Spreitzer came up with the concept of psychological empowerment. This has four elements  – the meaning we get from the work we do; the tangible impact of the work we do; our levels of competence to do our work; and the level of autonomy we have to do our work.

The researchers used hardiness to explore the relationship between psychological and structural empowerment and burnout because it is “essential for responding to high demands of work”Suzanne Kobasa identified hardiness as having three elements to it – commitment to the work, control over the work and challenge offered through the work and,

“Individuals with hardiness view their work environment as a space of proving opportunities rather than one full of constraints”

The 210 participants were middle-managers across Spain, with the majority being men and coming from the manufacturing sector. Middle managers were defined as having at least 10 people reporting through to them and that they, in turn, reported to senior managers higher up in their organisation.

All participants responded to four surveys. The first three took place in 2012, the last one took place in 2014. The time-lag was a way to manage the potential negative impact of any organisational changes that may have taken place. The surveys were completed in the following order:

  1. 2012 month one – focused on structural empowerment using the Conditions of Work Effectiveness Questionnaire II;
  2. 2012 month two – focused on hardiness using the Spanish version of the Resistant Personality Questionnaire;
  3. 2012 month three – focused on psychological empowerment using the Psychological Empowerment Instrument; and
  4. 2014 month four – focused on burnout using the Spanish version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory General Survey.

The findings

Calvo and Garcia found that,

“organizations that foster structural the structural conditions of the working environment (support, resources, information and opportunity) could have psychologically empowered middle managers, which leads to the reduction of the undesirable consequences of burnout”

While structural empowerment was found to have an indirect effect on burnout through psychological empowerment, moderated by hardiness, they found that this indirect effect was only significant when a person exhibited medium or high levels of hardiness. They go on to suggest that work environment conditions are not enough to explain the levels of burnout among middle managers and that personality also plays a part. Conversely, they suggest that good working conditions don’t automatically imply low levels of burnout and that hardiness has a role too.

“Middle managers need to develop a medium or high range of hardiness in order for them to profit from the conditions of their workplace (structural empowerment) and to improve their psychological empowerment”

Implications and solutions

This research has a number of limitations which could have impacted the findings. These include gender (mostly men participated), organisational context (the bulk of respondents were from manufacturing sector), national culture (the study was Spanish so may not replicate in other contexts), and was self-report.

Nonetheless, whilst the study is limited in a number of ways, it is the first to explore the relationship between the organisation (structural empowerment) and the individual (psychological empowerment and personality) in relation to burnout. This is important when you consider,

“the stressful nature of the middle managers’ role could have negative consequences on their physical and mental health as well as on the proper performance of their work”

Things that organisations and practitioners can do:

  1. When recruiting for management roles include selection approaches which assess hardiness. This includes having interviewers who are adept at exploring hardiness.
  2. Develop a training programme which supports managers in building their hardiness. The researchers cite one study which did this with a group of nurses, with positive results and demonstrated that “hardiness can be learned”.
  3. Provide managers with skills and techniques in managing conflict so that it’s seen as an opportunity to explore and improve, rather than something to be avoided.
  4. Put in place coaching and mentoring for managers, pairing those lower on the hardiness measure with those who are higher.

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