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The Business Forum Journal

 

"Handling Middle Management Stress"

[Adapted from Common Materials]

 

 

By Henry H. Goldman

 

  

Job-related stress on managers is caused by different factors in different countries, according to a ten-country study by Professor of Organizational Management, Dr. Gary Cooper of the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. 

Professor Cooper found, that in the United States, managers are more often stressed when they have little or no influence over their work, or must work for an incompetent supervisor.  Swedish managers suffer stress when their work encroaches on their private lives, and when they must deal with strong labor unions.  Causes of stress for German executives are most likely deadline pressures and working with poorly trained subordinates.  Stress related factors in Japan include working with high technology and having too much work with too little time in which to accomplish it.  British managers complained of the necessity of having to stay current with technology and excessive away-from-home travel. 

The greatest amount of stress occurs in jobs where the worker faces heavy demands, yet has little control over how the job is to be accomplished.  In certain kinds of jobs, it appears that the technology controls the worker, instead of the worker controlling the technology.  It now appears that having access to one or more social networks also creates stress, particularly if the network is not job oriented, or causes the worker to become a slave to their network.

Certain service company jobs are high in stress where the worker has little control over how to relate to the client.  Probably, the best current example are air traffic controllers.  Others include cashiers, 911 dispatchers and airline customer service agents working in high volume, but bad weather airports.  Workers who are embedded in large organizations with very restrictive work rules that prevent them from responding to client needs in the way that they would like (large HMOs are examples) suffer a good deal of on-the-job stress. 

In those cases where the individual has a good deal of control over how to do the job, some demands can be quite positive.  Where the employee is given a sense of empowerment, the stress level drops dramatically.  These can seem like challenges and new initatives.  The engineer or chemist, as examples, never knows where the new trend of discovery may lead.

But what about the level of stress on managers, and, particularly, on middle managers?  Managers often face high demands, but they also generally have a high degree of control over their work.  Managerial and professional employment is generally associated with only average levels of stress.  These individuals often set their own pace and are frequently very much in charge of selecting those procedures that best carry out their tasks.

Managers are usually able to determine with whom they are  they are going to work and to have influence over broad decisions that may affect job security and promotion.  Moreover, they can grow and develop new skills in their work, unlike those in high-stress positions.  This helps them to build self-confidence. 

 

Sources of Stress for Managers

Technology Production Problems

Problems in plant modernization and efficiency, engineering, design, production standards, machine capability, raw materials, suppliers' input, production runs, unit costs, shift requirements, supervision, inspection, quality requirements, re-work and salvage, production planning and control, robotics, safety issues, etc.  Add to the above, social networking and its outside influences, and you have reason for stress at all levels.

Financial Concerns

Budgeting, risk return, cash flow, capitalization, funding, allocation, managerial accounting, cost control and containment, labor wage demands, currency fluctuations, European problems, Return on Assets, Return on Equity, net profit after tax, taxation, government regulations, etc.  All of these can place stress on the middle manager.

Representational Problems

These kinds of issues are seen as problems in representing the company in the trade or industry, the community, with sub-contractors, with prime contractors, with investors, in government relations, litigation, mediation, public relations, customer relations (internal as well as external), image building, etc.

Physical Plant Problems

These are rooted in such stress-causing concerns as plant engineering and maintenance, warehousing capacity, safety standards, building layout, workflow, reinsurance, security, flexibility for expansion, access in emergencies, materials handling capacity, hazardous material disposal, and, since September 11, 2001, a heightened view of terrorism.

Human Resource Problems

These are made up of issues such as lowered employee productivity, workplace conflict, skills availability, union representation, motivation, absenteeism, staffing (particularly, selection and placement), incentives and rewards (financial and non-financial), job design, training and development, slowdown tactics, morale (or the lack thereof), transfer and replacement, discipline, succession planning, cooperation, technology and displacement of human labor (moving from labor intensive to capital intensive environments), high turnover, and, today, more likely social issues: workplace diversity, social networking, gender issues, racial concerns, single mothers, etc.  Companies must deal with the economic realities of the marketplace and, since 2008, deep recession and extremely slow recovery, together with high unemployment and, at the same time, the lack of highly skilled labor.  All of this requires adjusting staffing levels to agree with the fluctuations in the economy, i.e., if sales are down, layoffs will be up.

Required Informational Problems

This family of stress causing problems centers around the availability of information, its accuracy and timeliness, and utility of ideas.  Along with these, managers are concerned with standards, statistics, trends, forecasts and projections, proposals, surveys, studies, and other kinds of general and/or specific "intelligence."

Evaluation Issues

These will include evaluation of unit performance (department, division, plant, etc.) and profit center performance, assessment of functions and their contributions, feedback, adequacy of controls, individual work appraisal, recommendations for possible reorganization and their overall impact.

Organizational Problems

Problems, issues and overall concerns about the organization itself, can cause particularly high levels of stress among middle managers.  These include, but are not limited to: chain of command and reporting relationships, changes in allocation of authority, misalignment of organizational units, disputes between line and staff, decentralization vs. centralization, committee structure, span of control, delegation, obsolescence, organization and communication difficulties and interdepartmental coordination and cooperation.

Methodology Problems

Here, the stress causing issues deal with how things are or are not getting done.  These include efficiency, workflows, systems analyses, feasibility, paperwork, speed, accuracy, utility, changes in procedures: change in general, economics, etc.  

Product Problems

Managers' stress levels are affected by the very products manufactured by their companies.  These include product styling, pricing and product promotion.  There are also ongoing issues dealing with customer care, product safety, life cycle, marketing strategies, competition, consumer preference, etc.

Service Problems

These include, but are not limited to issues of order handling, customer relations and customer service, customer specifications, warranties and special services.

Leadership Problems

Certain companies distinguish themselves by the lack of leadership and managerial acumen.  These issues cause a great deal of stress among middle managers.  The issues related to problems of leadership include the caliber of management performance at the senior level, quality of expertise in staff and line functions, professionalism and behavior of managers (inconsistent leadership styles) and seeing management as role models.  Recent activities in various federal agencies about the lack of management at the line level (Secret Service, General Services Administration, etc.) has caused grave concern in Congress and with the electorate. 

Goals Objectives Concerns

A related set of issues and concerns causing stress among middle managers are those that revolve around problems of overcoming competition.  These include market penetration, research, goal-setting, strategic and tactical planning, expression of management philosophy, new product development, risk (not only financial risk but reputational risk, as well), growth strategies (acquisition, diversification. opening of new markets, etc.), program development, updating of old policies and the formulation of new ones, changes to company procedures, expanded or contracted resources, business ethics and social responsibility.

Compliance Problems

These concerns are largely imposed upon the company from the outside.  These include compliance with laws governing safety, diversity, employees and customers with disabilities, sexual harassment, as well as environmental standards, taxation, licensing, collective bargaining and other regulatory requirements.

Each of the concerns listed above must be dealt with so as to mitigate the amount of stress undergone by middle managers.  Executives may suffer even greater amounts of stress and may even have less capability of dealing with it.

Managers, at all levels, and in all firms, must understand the nature of their stress and develop ways of handling the stress.  More and more companies are seeing workplace stress as illness that can be cured.  Understanding the cause of stress can go a long way toward alleviating it.


Henry H. Goldman is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute and is the Managing Director of the Goldman Nelson Group.  Henry got his Masters Degree at the University of Iowa and did his Doctoral Studies at the University of Southern California.  He is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management (CPCM); and has published numerous articles in trade journals and was Associate Editor of Taking Stock: A Survey on the Practice and Future of Change Management (Berlin, Germany).  He is a member of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD); Association of Professional Consultants (APC) and the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC). Henry has consulted and/or offered training in South Africa, Tanzania, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Barbados, Georgia, Kosovo, Tajikistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and of course North America.  He has also taught at Baker University: Lee’s Summit, MO, 2008, Adjunct Professor of International Business; National Graduate School: Falmouth, MA, 2004-2008, Adjunct Professor of Quality Management; California State University: Fullerton, 2005-2006, Lecturer on Taxation; University of California: Berkeley, 2002, Adjunct Professor of Management; University of Macau (China), Adjunct Professor of Management, 2001-2003.


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