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Managers have been living in a pressure cooker. Many have had it

<i>mapodile/E+/Getty Images</i><br/>Keeping employees focused and happy through it all -- while striving to accommodate everyone's scheduling needs
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mapodile/E+/Getty Images
Keeping employees focused and happy through it all -- while striving to accommodate everyone's scheduling needs

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN Business

Inspire your team. Deliver results. Keep costs under control.

Those have always been top responsibilities for leaders and managers at work. But their job duties have grown more time-consuming and complex thanks to the stress of the pandemic, searing political discord, urgent social justice issues, geopolitical earthquakes, the Great Resignation and now recession fears.

Keeping employees focused and happy through it all — while striving to accommodate everyone’s scheduling needs, health concerns and personal obligations on top of their own bosses’ demands — has been … well, a lot.

“We’ve never been here, where the entirety of the workforce is experiencing social, economic and psychological change,” said attorney Claire Deason at employment law firm Littler Mendelson P.C., who advises clients on their remote work arrangements and the pandemic’s impact on the workplace.

That has changed how leaders — from the C-suite to middle management — think about work and what they really want in their lives.

C-suite blues

A recent survey of 2,100 respondents from four countries conducted by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence found that “nearly 70% of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.” A large majority of executives (81%) said improving their well-being is now more important than advancing at work.

Meanwhile, in the first five months of 2022, global outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas found that 668 US-based CEOs have left their positions, making it the highest January-through-May total recorded since the firm began tracking monthly CEO changes in 2002.

“The CEO exodus continues. Economic conditions, rising inflation, and recession concerns are making boards rethink leadership and leaders rethink if they want to take on these challenges,” said Andrew Challenger, the company’s senior vice president.

Middle managers in a tough spot

When it comes to middle management, a survey earlier this year by Gartner of 1,000 mid-level leaders in 13 countries found that roughly a quarter said they feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and 25% said they don’t feel mentally engaged at work.

Among other things, they’re now under pressure from leadership to get things “back to normal” even though the lives and outlook of the people they manage no longer fit a pre-pandemic normal.

What’s more, managers themselves have their own personal pressures and mental health strains to contend with.

And like so many other employees, they too may want to work more flexibly.

But when it comes to working remotely, a lot of companies have different rules for higher-ups than for the rank-and-file, Deason said. The senior executives are often expected to be in the office. And managers who want to rise in the ranks may feel they should do the same, even if they prefer to work from home and are already managing a team that’s working remote a lot of the time.

Another major stressor for middle managers: Many are relatively new, hired after a wave of more tenured managers decided to retire early during the pandemic, Challenger said.

“They’re learning to be a manager to teams that are remote. And there’s not a lot of wisdom or experience they can get from [more tenured managers]. That is exhausting,” he noted.

More equilibrium ahead

There is also more pressure on managers to hold teams together when employees have more power than ever and quit rates have been at record highs. And the latest five-month layoff rate was the lowest recorded since Challenger started tracking it in 1993.

“Companies have been hanging onto people and are loathe to let them go in this environment,” Challenger said.

He anticipates the hot labor market may start to cool a bit by the end of this year, amid concerns about the economy.

But that cooling may just temper the quit rate, not cause it to plunge. And it may increase layoffs, but not hugely.

Should both those levers move as Challenger predicts, that may settle at least one of the exhausting ambiguities managers and executives have had to contend with lately: How many days people will work in the office versus remote.

To date there’s been a big disconnect between what employers want and what their employees want. “Employers going for hybrid may think four days a week and employees think it should be zero,” Challenger said. “As the labor market cools, we’ll get closer to a new post-Covid equilibrium.”

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