Middle Management: The Worst of Both Worlds

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Hello, department leads, supervisors, team leaders, and the rest of you middle-manager types out there. How are you? No, really — how are you? Because a research team at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health is a little worried. 

In a paper published online last month in the journal Sociology of Health & Illness, they write that those in middle-management positions are more likely to suffer from depression than either their underlings or their superiors. The team, led by Columbia epidemiologist Seth J. Prins, used a pretty huge sample size for their research: more than 20,000 survey respondents gathered from full-time workers who took part in the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. From that, Prins and his co-authors were able to analyze the responses of owners and executives, managers and supervisors, and low-level worker bees on their experiences with depression. 

The results: 18 percent of middle managers reported a bout of depression within the last 12 months, compared to 11 percent of the executives and owners, and 12 percent of the workers. Not the biggest difference, it’s true, but this isn’t the first piece of research to identify the particular unhappiness of the mid-level manager. Late last year, a "leadership development consultancy" (whatever that means) surveyed more than 300,000 employees about their happiness at work, and then analyzed the unhappiest 5 percent to see what they had in common. You may have guessed where this is going: Most of them were middle managers, according to a subsequent post in Harvard Business Review

It’s not too hard to speculate why unhappiness may be more likely to befall the supervisors stuck in the middle. They’re often stuck implementing strategies they didn’t come up with and making sure their direct reports fall in line, which in practice usually means they have to put up with whining and complaining from both sides of the office hierarchy. Which is to say: Show some patience toward your friendly neighborhood middle manager today, won’t you?