This Type Of Employee Is The Most Likely To Burn Out At Work

Are you part of the "sandwich squeeze" cohort at your job? Here's what to do.
Middle managers have a tough, thankless job — but they are necessary for any organisation.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost;Photo:Getty Images
Middle managers have a tough, thankless job — but they are necessary for any organisation.

When you’re a middle manager, the pressure comes from all sides.

You’re going to be held accountable for carrying out executives’ marching orders, but unlike senior leaders, you’re the one who has to directly sell leadership’s vision to your team.

“Middle managers often have limited authority, yet they are held accountable for achieving results,” said Jenny Fernandez, an executive and leadership consultant. “This creates a feeling of being trapped between conflicting demands.”

In toxic situations, middle managers become the buffer between bad management and frustrated, anxious employees.

“They are tasked with managing up and are responsible for delivering business goals that may be unrealistic due to external factors” like economic downturns and intense competition, as well as internal challenges like hiring freezes, budget cuts or reorganisations, Fernandez said.

Autumn Maison said that she experienced these types of demands firsthand as a middle manager at a major tech company. Maison recalled that during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, she felt a pressure to make sure her direct reports were productive at a difficult time, while also managing up the expectations from leadership.

“I was getting increasingly frustrated, because it felt like every step that I was taking in every single decision I was making was the wrong one,” she said. “It was always this endless sort of building of frustration and angst, because it felt like I was just constantly letting people down.”

Eventually, Maison hit her limit and said she became completely exhausted. She took six weeks of medical leave from work for her anxiety.

“The tension I had been holding on to and all the adrenaline that had been keeping me through that period, it all hit at one time,” she recalled. “I was so depleted from that period.”

Research has shown that middle managers are the type of employees most at risk of experiencing job burnout. Gallup survey results from 2021 found that managers were more likely to report higher levels of burnout and stress compared with direct reports.

Why This Happens And What It Looks Like

Psychologist and executive coach Lauren Appio said that middle manager burnout can show up as irritability, restlessness, a preoccupation with work, feelings of failure or ineffectiveness, difficulties with focus and concentration, or increased substance misuse.

“They may find themselves with a fancier title and bigger scope of responsibilities, but without the resources or influence to do their job well,” Appio said about why middle managers have such a tough role.

Jocelyn Lai, the global head of talent acquisition at Duolingo, identifies as a middle manager. According to Lai, what can make middle management taxing is how you become the “secret-keeper” for your team.

“That burden is on me, all the positives and all the negatives,” she said. “I have to figure out, what do I share and what do I not share with upper management?”

As a middle manager, you have to balance the needs of your team with what upper management wants, and this can be challenging. In fact, an increasing number of younger middle managers say that these duties are too much to handle.

Approximately 71% of middle managers say they “sometimes” or “always” feel overwhelmed, stressed or burned out at work ― and that number spiked to 75% for millennial and other middle managers under 35, according to a 2023 survey by productivity software company Capterra with responses from more than 300 middle managers in Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.

According to Maison, something that can exacerbate burnout is how many middle managers are part of the “sandwich” generation ― a term used to describe the financial and emotional challenges of supporting both aging parents and young children.

“Just as they are coming into more responsibilities at work, they may also be experiencing increasing or changing responsibilities outside of work, like parenting or caring for ageing family members,” Appio said. “It’s a lot of pressure all around.”

At the time of her middle manager burnout, Maison was taking care of her hospitalised father and two children, who needed her to show up and be present for them on top of dealing with her work demands. She described that time period as a “sandwich squeeze” from both her job and her personal life.

“It felt like I was just constantly letting people down.”

- Autumn Maison, a former middle manager at a major tech company

Another thing that can be emotionally tough for middle managers is how teams expect more from them nowadays. As employees, we need them to help manage our careers, but more of us also want them to know what we are feeling and thinking ― and we want to know what they feel and think, too.

“Modern middle managers face new challenges in managing diverse teams,” Fernandez said. “With four to five generations now in the workforce, conflicts and disagreements arise due to differing expectations, values and work styles.”

Lai said that with younger, Generation Z colleagues who want more vulnerability, she will share glimpses of her personal life, but she’s learned that she does not have to “open the whole window.”

Lai lays out explicit boundaries around what she does on the weekend, with language like “I really value my privacy in life, but I appreciate you asking.”

She noted, “That boundary, I think just showing them what it is, is an act of vulnerability.”

And when it comes to interpreting leadership’s decisions, Lai said it helps to be upfront that you are not an expert on everything.

Lai said that she’s learned to be transparent with her team about when she does not agree with upper management’s decisions. Saying “here’s what I think,” “here’s what we’re doing as a company,” or “I don’t know why we’re doing it this way, but I’m going to find out the answer for you” is how she’ll frame the discussion, Lai added.

“What I’ve learned is, if I say [that] I don’t agree with a certain aspect of it but I’m still committing to standing behind the company, it actually strengthens the message,” Lai said.

Tips For Preventing Burnout

As a middle manager, your well-being should be a top priority.

“I have to first take care of myself to be then able to work through it with everyone else,” Lai said. She added that it helps to talk with other middle managers within your company who might have the “missing puzzle piece that [you’ve] been trying to figure out.”

To prevent burnout, it also helps to understand the extent and limits of your power as a middle manager, Appio said.

“You can be influential, but you cannot actually control other people’s behavior — your team members’ or your leaders’,” she said. “Therapy and coaching can be helpful with recognising and tolerating this.”

In some cases, it can help to ask executives to meet with your team and explain their decisions, said organisational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting business Gallaher Edge. That way, “you can all work to get on the same page, and you have less weight on your shoulders to play the ‘middle person,’” she said. “This is especially useful for very critical changes, or changes that create a sense of loss for your teams.”

And make sure to use the support that your company offers. Maison said she had a supportive workplace that allowed her to have the time off that she needed. She advised middle managers to take advantage of company-sponsored mental health benefits or ones that you’re entitled to in your state.

Also, it helps to know that middle management is not for everyone. Quitting is a perfectly fine option, too. Maison, now a New York City-based tech consultant, said that during her disability leave, she realised that her situation was untenable and resigned.

“The environment that I was in was causing the anxiety, and going back into that environment would have led me to the exact same place of burnout,” she said.

Maison said that her middle management burnout completely recalibrated her expectations for what she wanted from her life and career. She said she is now much more fulfilled as an individual contributor, because this role allows for more flexibility in her schedule and ownership over her time.

“I thought that as a very driven person, that the path for me was very linear and that path was an upward line. But it doesn’t look like that to me anymore,” she said. “It looks like, ‘How does work fit into my life?’ not just, ‘How does my life revolve around work?’”

People in other positions should be conscious of middle managers’ well-being, too. Although it can sometimes be a thankless job, middle managers are still necessary for any company. They deserve a shoutout for their hard work.

A little gratitude and grace can count for a lot. Lai said that she still remembers a direct report who actively thanked her. That’s because middle managers’ jobs are both tough and rewarding under the best of circumstances.

The “most effective middle managers are the systems thinkers,” Lai said. “They’re the ones who understand how this impacts five people over here, or how one person’s unhappiness could trickle into other things.”

Lai said that most leaders in senior roles care about people, but middle managers are the ones who express that care and make people feel cared for. This involves “checking in with someone and having a conversation, [asking] them how their day is going. And that goes a long way,” Lai said. “I truly believe that that actually then makes the work more motivating. ... It helps team morale.”