A history of middle manager stress: The Return podcast, season 3, episode 1

This article is part of a special podcast series that covers the challenges and opportunities of returning to the office. More from the series →

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Middle managers have been underwater since the 70s.

The biggest challenges, frustrations and reasons for discontent among this middle layer of the workforce, were prolifically documented by news outlets through the following decades. Fast forward 50 years, and woefully little has changed.

In 2023 and 2024, headlines like “Middle managers are the least confident they’ve ever been,” and “What are middle managers so miserable?“ and “How to loosen the squeeze on middle managers,“ dominated the news cycle.

So why has there been such meek improvement for this critical layer of organizations’ workforces?

That’s what we are diving into with Season Three of the Return by putting a spotlight on a group of workers who have largely been overlooked and ignored. Middle managers are stressed, overwhelmed and unhappy. It’s time to change the narrative.

To kick off the series, I spoke with Emily Field, a partner in McKinsey’s people and organization practice based in Seattle, to define what exactly a middle manager is. She has spent the last few years deeply researching the topic of managers for her recently published book, “Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work.”

She tells us more about why this role is critically important to the workforce, how middle managers are emotional lifeguards, and how their roles have evolved to become so much more challenging. 

Across six episodes, season three of The Return explores why middle managers are constantly overwhelmed and what needs to be done to help this cohort of workers that are arguably the most important to a company’s DNA.

We will explore topics including accidental managers, the need for training, where managers can find support, how they navigate tough conversations, and how AI is helping them free up their time to focus on the people part of management.

Season three of The Return is hosted by Cloey Callahan, a Gen Zer and senior reporter at Digiday Media’s WorkLife, and produced by Digiday Media’s audio producer Sara Patterson. Subscribe to the WorkLife podcast now on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.


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