November 06, 2019

When a promotion turns into exhaustion: Recognizing and preventing burnout in your new managers

The word burnout usually brings to mind employees on the front lines, helping an endless queue of frustrated customers until they’re worn down and unmotivated. While that’s one (very accurate) image of burnout, there’s another that’s often overlooked: a newly-promoted manager who is trying to navigate managing people, meeting project deadlines, and fostering relationships with the higher-ups. It’s overwhelming, and our leaders are burning out. 

Maybe you’ve overheard a manager snapping at a direct report. Or maybe a manager is always behind on submitting their performance reviews. These symptoms of burnout can be easily spotted, but without understanding why they’re showing up, providing relief is nearly impossible. 

Here are some causes of manager burnout:  

New managers are in unfamiliar territory 

Most managers start their careers on the front lines. They excel at their jobs and build great relationships with their teams. Their reward is promotion into a role that sounds a lot like their prior role but feels very different. 

Managing others requires skills that employees may not have had to develop before, like delegating, giving feedback, and negotiating. Not everyone is a natural leader; building these skills takes time and practice. It’s challenging to tackle that while also learning new job responsibilities. 

All work and no play: the path to burnout 

People in leadership roles burn the midnight oil. They’re honing new skills, learning about their new responsibilities and performance goals, and navigating new relationship dynamics with former peers they now manage. The balancing act often translates to longer hours. 

Because we tend to think of this behavior as commitment and dedication, employers rarely see the cost of stress in a new manager: exhaustion, less attention to detail, and a negative attitude, to name a few. 

Leaders of projects, not leaders of people 

A recent study found that 64% of executives believe middle managers are more critical to employee engagement than the higher-ups. But that news hasn’t reached the managers themselves. Most managers experience intense pressure to hit their goals, and they feel they must prioritize KPIs over leadership. It’s often at this point in their journey that managers start to try a “tough love” approach, fearing that upper management will see team growth and engagement as less valuable than performance. As many leaders have learned the hard way, performance suffers when managers fail to invest in developing their people. 

Switching gears all day accelerates burnout 

Managers have a dual role: they manage others while being managed themselves, and find themselves forced to toggle between those two very different mindsets throughout the workday. The consequences of this back-and-forth can be massive — people are more likely to drop balls and make mistakes when they’re pulled in multiple directions. When managers have to spend their time shifting mindsets, they aren’t taking time to reflect or plan, and become more reactive than proactive. In time, they grow exhausted and disillusioned because they never see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

How to prevent manager burnout

Recognizing the need 

Asking for help is hard, especially for the newly promoted. It’s up to company leadership to spot opportunities for improvement. Since you’re reading this, you probably either suspect your managers are burning out, or you’re afraid they’re headed that way. If you’re not sure, lean in, start the conversation, and listen to problems impacting your team. You might begin to see symptoms that were in your blind spot before.

Supporting your managers 

There are several organizational strategies you can put in place to protect your leaders from burning out. 

  1. Recognition. Promoting someone into a management position is a big step toward recognizing an employee’s hard work. That acknowledgment should continue into their new role, especially if they’ve had to learn new skills along the way. 
  2. Streamlined communication. Making it easier for managers to communicate up and down the ladder will make them more efficient and reduce misunderstandings. Solutions include using a collaboration hub, requiring agendas for meetings, and setting clear next steps after decisions are made. 
  3. Trust. An easy way to reduce stress for employees is to show them you trust them. You promoted your managers for a reason — you believe they can do the job. Give them room to try new things (and maybe make a misstep)—it will help them relax and find a way to manage without burning out. 

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