Burnout at the boss: Managers in top positions are less at risk

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How does leadership work? There is a chart on the net that is circulating in different languages. It shows birds sitting in rows on top of each other on poles: the managers at the top, everyone else below. Some like the joke it is supposed to convey, others find it flat.

Because the bird droppings end up, of course, all in all, especially further down. The number of birds decreases towards the top, as does the dirt on the plumage. One could see this as an allegory of bad leadership, as a classic top-down hierarchy in which stress mainly arises from below.

Today, when hierarchies are flatter and managers strive for more eye-level between different management levels, the image scares many. “But something about it is surprisingly true,” says Jennifer Korman, a psychologist. “Those who hold a high position actually get less stressful and are less at risk of burnout.”

The degree of freedom is greater for senior executives, says Korman. Just like in the picture: Stress affects the people below. In the case of executives, those in middle and lower management. This is where the risk of burnout increases, Jennifer Korman found out in a study that she carried out with Christian Tröster and Niels Van Quaquebeke from the Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg.

High management position protects against stress

Burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion as a result of chronic stress and high workload, has long been thought to affect all people in positions of responsibility equally. Korman’s study now gives a more precise picture.

Earlier studies showed that a higher hierarchical level goes hand in hand with better mental health. Why is that? “As we have seen, people in management positions, to put it simply, have more control over their own situation and the organization of their tasks,” says Korman. “That protects them better against stress and the result of burnout.” The higher up in management you are, the more freedom of choice you have.

For the study, Korman and her colleagues asked 580 and 154 managers in two rounds about the degree of their emotional exhaustion and about two decisive factors influencing this in a controlled manner: a person’s “feeling of power” and “self-efficacy”. Both factors make it possible to control and thus change your own situation.

“For us, a sense of power was the ability to successfully influence people around us,” explains Korman. “Having self-efficacy, in turn, means being able to master tasks successfully thanks to your own skills.”

Jennifer Korman

Jennifer Korman

Kühne Logistics University

“We need the feeling of not being helpless in a situation that is unpleasant for us”

In the two-part survey, the researchers put the position of the managers questioned in relation to the degree of exhaustion they indicated and the two influencing factors power and self-efficacy. In the second round, they also asked a person close to the interviewed manager for their opinion. “Mostly this was the manager’s partner,” says Korman. “The statements generally agreed.”

Result: The more power and self-efficacy someone felt, the less stress could harm them. The risk of burnout decreased. People who were lower on the hierarchy scale, on the other hand, had higher stress rates and felt less able to cope with their own situation.

The result confirmed what Jennifer Korman had heard from a patient she recently interviewed in a burnout clinic as part of another research project. “The man was broken at a lower level of the company from experiencing difficulties that he could not change. In order to feel good and important at work and to be protected from burnout, we need the feeling that we can change situations that are unpleasant for us and that we are not helplessly at the mercy of them, ”she says.

Believe in yourself: through a good error culture and communication

Since not all managers can simply be promoted further, other measures are important. “Anyone who is able to see the big picture from below or from the middle feels better in a company,” says Korman. “A culture that allows mistakes and understands them as stages in development is also crucial,” she says. There must also be intact communication. “If, as a manager, I am heard in what bothers me, a lot is gained.”

According to the psychologist, managers in the middle and lower segment also benefit from resilience training and from role models and mentoring in the company. “All of these can help them believe in themselves and have a sense of achievement,” says Korman. “Companies should encourage their managers at all levels to design and improve their jobs as independently as possible.” The image of the birds on the perch, she says, will hopefully one day be out of date.


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