Is mid-career malaise impacting your leadership?

She came into our coaching session looking a bit sad, letting out a big sigh when I asked her how she was doing.

“I’m so bored at work. And it’s affecting my team. It’s a great job with a great credit union but I’ve been there 15 years and am starting to wonder if I can do this for the next 15. I should feel grateful to have a job like this, and for the promotions along the way, but I just feel stuck. I want to make more of a difference, I just don’t know how.”

Studies show this client of mine is not alone. One study from Andrew Clark and Andrew Oswald maps out a U-shaped curve of career satisfaction. We tend to feel pretty satisfied in our jobs and career as we start out and get going, but then hit a low spot about 15-20 years in. Then our satisfaction heads back up again at the latter stages of our career.

So if this mid-career malaise is pretty standard, just imagine the sort of impact this is having on our staff and organizations. Most of a credit union’s leadership is in this 15-20 year range. And typically have been at that credit union for most, if not all, of their career.

Managers have the more impact than therapists?

Yep! In this study by UKG they found managers have more impact on a staffer’s mental health than the employee’s therapist. And surprisingly, had the same impact as the staffer’s spouse.

You can count me as someone who’s manager impacted their mental health. During my eight years at a credit union, I felt I had to steel myself for my manager’s tumultuous moods. When he was having depressive episodes his demeanor took a toll on the whole team, but especially those of us reporting directly to him. It was emotionally exhausting for me and made it difficult to manage my own team in my signature style. And yes, he was in the mid-career stage at the time.

That UKG study also shows us about 40% of managers reported they are not at their best at any given time. And even in the C-suite, about 30% say they’re operating under less than ideal mental and emotional states.

So yes indeed, a manager’s state of mind absolutely impacts their staff and apparently a good-size chunk of managers are likely impacting their staff in a negative way.

Mid-career state of mind

Typically, mid-career slumps reflect some sort of mid-life dynamics. It doesn’t even need to be a full blown mid-life ‘crisis’ for our state of mind to impact attitudes about work and career. Several types of events can trigger it, but they typically involve a questioning of identity:

  • Empty nesters who may no longer feel as much of a parent as they used to
  • Hitting milestone birthdays which have us reflecting back and looking forward, wondering if we’ve done enough or are doing what we were meant to or is this all there is?
  • Death of a parent or other loved one which can take away our role as daughter, son, caregiver

And we can also look to how our needs have changed as we moved through life. I find it especially helpful to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to illustrate how and why what we need in our career changes. For example, we might’ve needed to feel part of a community at one point – that we belonged. Once that happened, we become more driven by recognition, awards and promotions. But then we start to look for meaning and purpose in our work. We start to see a gap in who we are and who we could be, wanting to meet that potential as we move into the self-actualization phase of the Hierarchy of Needs.

How to address mid-career malaise

Employee engagement might be the first approach you might think of, but the causes which lead to mid-career malaise may not be addressed by typical employee engagement tactics. For instance, rewards and recognition are often used to increase employee engagement, but many mid-lifers have already achieved such milestones and are looking for something more meaningful.

So how can organizations support mid-career managers? What are ways to boost their drive and meet their needs?

Integrate support in leadership training

Considering that most leaders in your organization are likely in their mid-career phase, even just mentioning mid-career slumps in their training materials can help your older managers name what they’re feeling. They may not even have labelled their boredom or frustration as a sign of being in a mid-life scenario. When you highlight this as being a fairly common phase most leaders go through, they will likely feel seen and then feel better knowing this is a thing which has available resources. Then depending on your credit union’s level of commitment to well-being, offer the resources appropriate to your organization.

Deeper support

Those resources could be as simple as having a collection of ways for them to get support on their own: counseling, non-profits which specialize in mid-life support, coaching, continuing education at local community colleges to encourage learning new non-work skills and broadening their social connections.

Some organizations harness the wisdom of their leaders in voluntary mentoring programs. It’s very different than managing staff – allowing the mentor to be more relaxed and forthcoming and the mentee to tap into the mentor’s experience without the pressure of performance repercussions. This type of set-up addresses the mid-lifer’s call to have more meaning and purpose.

Another option for answering that meaning and purpose call is to encourage them to get clear on what it is they find fulfilling. Coaching is a great resource for that as certified coaches are trained in helping people uncover answers to these deeper questions. Then encourage the leader to find ways to do that fulfilling activity at work. It might be within the structure of their current job, or maybe to help another department with a project they wouldn’t normally sit in on.

I have one client who works in the marketing department but feels called to explore HR roles. She’s offered her time (as appropriate) to the HR department and has helped with employee events and morale-boosting campaigns. She absolutely felt so empowered and reinvigorated through these experiences.

Industry influence

What if the credit union industry came together to offer support? That’s exactly what’s happening in the insurance industry in the United Kingdom. Industry leaders recognized the potential for mid-lifers to help fill jobs as so many expressed the desire to stay engaged in the workplace beyond age 65 if they only had a meaningful work experience. The industry pulled together a group of organizations which support career changes and/or mid-life concerns. Now they and their employees have a solid set of resources to use if and when the mid-life malaise creeps in. What a great example of how an industry can address an issue which is impacting the entire industry (and beyond)!

So the next time you see a manager/leader start to lose their enthusiasm and disengage from their role, explore what impact mid-life malaise might be having on them. Your thoughtful support could be just what they need to reinvigorate their career and find meaning in their work.

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown fell in love with credit unions in 2005 when hired to start up an in-house advertising agency at one of the nation’s top 30 credit unions. With ... Web: Details