"Anxious? Depressed? You might be suffering from capitalism"
August 30, 2015 12:45 PM   Subscribe

In a new study from researchers at Columbia University, of nearly 22,000 full-time workers (from a dataset from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions), they saw that 18 percent of supervisors and managers reported symptoms of depression. For blue-collar workers, that figure was 12 percent, and for owners and executives, it was only 11 percent.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero (29 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
The study only finds higher symptoms of depression in middle managers, which the researchers hypothesize is because "they get flak from above and below." It's not because everyone is "suffering from capitalism," otherwise you'd expect the poorer blue-collar workers to have even worse symptoms.
posted by Rangi at 12:52 PM on August 30, 2015 [11 favorites]


I agree with Rangi's comment above but I would also add, even if it were the case that the blue-collar workers had a highest rate of symptoms , the terms of the study does not mean at all that this result would be straightforwardly attributable to capitalism. The study addessed hierarchical structures in industrial organization; such structures also of course exist in e.g. Communism
posted by Bwithh at 1:07 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it can be understood in relation to the Milgram experiment. In these terms, workers in our culture can be understood as the people receiving the shocks, with executives playing the role of the experimenter. Middle management is the subject of the experiment; they're the people who the experimenter tells to deliver shocks to the victims.

There is less anxiety associated with playing the executive role, because executives reap most of the benefits of the system and can soothe any guilt they may feel with both material luxuries and the calmness that comes with being widely recognized as high status. There is also less anxiety associated with playing the worker role, because there is less guilt associated with our role; we are for the most part victims rather than perpetrators. Middle management, however, inflicts the pain without receiving as many creature comforts or nearly as much of the comfort of status, which means they have much less to soothe their troubled consciences should they have the intelligence and emotional intelligence to understand the pain they are inflicting for the benefit of the executive class and under the command of the executive class.

In short, middle management is the class that has taken the following deal: receive slightly better treatment, slightly more social respect, slightly less physical wear on their bodies, and slightly less risk of sudden and irrevocable destitution, in exchange for actively carrying out the subjection of others. This is a shitty, shitty deal, and without a doubt results in massive guilt and anxiety among those who take it — even the ones who genuinely believe that there is no better arrangement possible.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:09 PM on August 30, 2015 [82 favorites]


I wonder if it has anything to do with having less free team. Presumably managers are salaried and are expected to be "always on."
posted by Nevin at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


“We don't have a lot of time on this earth! We weren't meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!”
~ Peter Gibbons, Office Space, Mike Judge
posted by Fizz at 1:23 PM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


The people at the bottom generally don't take the work home with them and don't give a fuck about the company as long as they get paid. And I'm not saying that disparagingly. They just don't give a fuck about your stupid company. They punch out at five and go have a life.

The people at the top do care about the stupid company and the game in general but they are winning that game -- they're getting the cash and the power -- so they are generally happy.

The middle managers believe in the game but aren't winning it, maybe despite many years of trying. They're just the grease and gears between the actual workers and the bosses.
posted by pracowity at 1:24 PM on August 30, 2015 [41 favorites]


pracowity:

I'm reminded of the whole "Clueless, Losers and Sociopaths" article that was going around.

Article here
posted by zabuni at 1:32 PM on August 30, 2015 [16 favorites]


I guess the point under all my words above is that managers know they're doing something bad, know that they're not benefiting from doing bad, and keep doing bad anyway. The thing that this article is missing, and the thing that phrases like "gets it from both sides" is missing, is an awareness that managing capitalist processes is actually a moral wrong. Knowing that one is actively committing moral wrongs makes one anxious.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:32 PM on August 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


This was me. I'm from a very blue collar family, was the first in my family to go to college, and though I started out in the same line of work as everyone else, I had it drummed into me that I was going to school so I could "do better." Basically, not slowly kill myself in the process of making a living. I graduated, the show I was working on was cancelled, so I started in corporate.

I worked for some time as an HR generalist consultant, mostly designing and maintaining IT stuff that allowed the HR dept to do things like hiring and recruiting. I didn't work there as a full-timer, although they tried on a very regular basis to hire me full-time. I still had visions of doing what I loved (ie still young and naive).

Towards the end of my time there, my manager came to me and basically said "we're looking to outsource as much of HR as possible, so I need you to do some research to find out who we could utilize for that. Under no circumstances are you to tell anyone what you are doing or of our plans." She tasked me with finding the company we could go with to save money and then in turn fire all my friends and coworkers, most of whom had kids, people who depended on them.

I kicked the can down the road, obfuscated, redirected, went on vacation, but at some point she nailed me down on a timeline and scheduled a meeting where I would have to report on progress. I waited until a few days before that meeting and then gave my notice.

I bounced around a while and then went back to being blue collar. I took a 50% pay cut for a long time, and only recently have I returned to and exceeded the level of pay I was at ten or so years ago. I've worked 36 hour days on my feet, slept on folding chairs, badly hurt myself and kept working, not seen my family for days and days and endured all manner of craziness, but I've never once thought about going back to sitting behind a desk so I could research how to put my friends out of work.

Blue collar all the way, for me. Union too. The work is hard and I'll never get rich, but I can afford to live my life and really, you can't hammer a nail over the internet, so they can't send my job to any developing nation.
posted by nevercalm at 1:49 PM on August 30, 2015 [45 favorites]


I once worked for a while as a middle manager. It was quite depressing, actually.
posted by ovvl at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


In short, middle management is the class that has taken the following deal: receive slightly better treatment, slightly more social respect, slightly less physical wear on their bodies, and slightly less risk of sudden and irrevocable destitution, in exchange for actively carrying out the subjection of others.

I think that you've pretty well articulated what is going on in those middle managers who feel depressed but I don't think that "capitalism" or "hierarchical structures" are to blame. My manager and her manager who used to be my manager, certainly don't feel that way. It feels a lot more to me like we're in it together (sometimes with and sometimes against upper management). So it's not a problem with the structure, just the execution of it.

I have no idea why my experience is so totally different and I understand that it's really rare. The point is, it doesn't have to be this way, I don't know how to fix it (probably better, more modern unions for white collar jobs), but there are different approaches that work better for all stake-holders.
posted by VTX at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


It feels a lot more to me like we're in it together (sometimes with and sometimes against upper management).

See, this is really interesting to me, because I'm interested in practical ways that middle managers can collectively act to gain leverage over executives. In the good jobs you've worked at, what strategies did you deploy to meaningfully win benefits for the workers over the executives? What threats could you muster? Were there limits to the domains you could act in? For example, could you only take the workers' side if there was a way to improve workplace conditions without impacting profit?

I'm asking seriously. Practical shit like this is way more important than theory.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:04 PM on August 30, 2015 [9 favorites]


yctab - at one point, I observed to my boss that we're making very good profit partly because we have understaffed teams (not just in tech, in other parts of the company too) working a lot following the lead of the workaholic partners - i'd like to think that some of the focus on hiring that happened after that came about because that concern was taken seriously by the partners
posted by kokaku at 2:10 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


The study addessed hierarchical structures in industrial organization; such structures also of course exist in e.g. Communism
There is a MASSIVE (and probably intentional) misunderstanding about hierarchical structures that the exact same dynamics occur in Government. (And singling out Communism while omitting Fascism shows obvious misinformation, if not DISinformation) The emotional issues affecting those at the top do vary significantly, since in Governmental hierarchies, it's all about having captial-P Power, while in Business structures, wealth is the chief motivator (they often are unaware how their power over their employees is actually comparable to that of a Politburo leader). In Totalitarian States, only the Supreme Leader and maybe a few top Generals can have palaces. In our Capitalist System, we have thousands upon thousands and are building more every day.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:49 PM on August 30, 2015


It strikes me that somewhat depressive people tend to end up in middle management, rather than middle management making them that way. Their fears and anxieties spur them to do the things that get them part way up the hill, where they get suck. If they didn't have those fears and anxieties, then their natural ambition would gotten them all the way to the top, or their natural lack of ambition would have kept them at the bottom.
posted by MattD at 2:54 PM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


MattD: So basically middle management is for people who have the positive qualities required to want to be at the top of a social hierarchy, but without the skills necessary to reach the top of that hierarchy? As you see it, is it appropriate to say that they feel bad because they:
  1. Are better than workers in that they realize that they should strive to be executives, but,
  2. Lack the genuine excellence required to advance to the executive class?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:07 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Um, if anybody read the paper you would see that top-level corporate executives (CEOs, etc) are also included in the more-likely-depressed/anxious "manager" category, which includes everyone with a 4-year or more degree who reported their occupation as "executive, administrative, or managerial". The less likely to be depressed/anxious "owner" group is only people who report self-employment and also make more than the 90th income percentile.
posted by junco at 3:26 PM on August 30, 2015 [12 favorites]


As you see it, is it appropriate to say that they feel bad because they:
1. Are better than workers in that they realize that they should strive to be executives, but,
2. Lack the genuine excellence required to advance to the executive class?


I can't speak for MattD, but have been talking with friends about this kind of stuff a lot lately since most of us are at the middle management level. I would argue that a lot of middle managers feel bad because their brains and drive have got them to a certain level and they realise that to get any further they would have to begin actively clawing at the backs of others, playing politics, putting others down in order to build themselves up, and they don't want to do that because they lack the ruthlessness and self-centredness needed. They don't want to be arses to those lower on the ladder, or those on a level with them. They feel they've got where they are because of brains and work, and the same should be enough to propel them further, but it's not - and furthermore, they see those who are prepared to be arses overtaking them, in some cases at their expense - and therefore they feel cheated and depressed.
posted by andraste at 4:29 PM on August 30, 2015 [13 favorites]


My argument is neither.

I am sure that there's a certain set of middle managers who are more talented than their blue-collar peers but don't advance because they lack that certain something that senior executives have.

But my point was that there's a certain other set of middle managers who aren't necessarily more talented than their blue-collar peers to begin with -- their mild depression instilled a sufficient anxiety about their prospects and support system that goaded them to power through college and bureaucracy to get to middle management, while their equally talented but less depressed brethren were happy with a blue collar future.
posted by MattD at 4:56 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Certain sectors of IT are really a mindfuck then, because the work roles have collapsed so much due to budget constraints and lack of labor standards, you often have to play the roles of both the middle and the bottom tier, exploiting yourself for the benefit of that executive class at the top.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:10 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


In short, middle management is the class that has taken the following deal: receive slightly better treatment, slightly more social respect, slightly less physical wear on their bodies, and slightly less risk of sudden and irrevocable destitution, in exchange for actively carrying out the subjection of others.

I've been in middle management so it's a great surprise to know I was "actively carrying out the subjection of others".

Was it stressful? Occasionally. On the other hand, I had the pleasure of working with a fine team of people. We had an excellent working environment, with great work-life balance. I suppose I could be deluding myself, but on the other hand, we had a turnover rate of less than 5% during good economic times.

The funny thing I suppose is that the focus in this thread is on the 18% who reported mental health issues. The perspective is: 72% did not. Except it doesn't fit into the narrative of yeah, capitalism.
posted by storybored at 9:20 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I adore my boss, but she's a middle manager who doesn't have much power over anybody, generally doesn't seem to get listened to about anything most of the time no matter what, and generally has a lot of draining crap thrown at her all the time. For the compensation of what she calls "big pennies." I think she'll run screaming out the door the second she can hit retirement/her kid gets out of college, and the rest of us will be poorer for it--but I can't blame her a bit either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:27 PM on August 30, 2015


I thought the whole point of middle management was working out ways not to inflict the pain without letting senior management know.

You know how every time you move up a level you lose some of the skills and knowledge of the level below? Well those above you have lost more. So have some fun in probing the boundaries of their knowledge and deflecting as much pain as possible from those below.
posted by fullerine at 11:34 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


"The funny thing I suppose is that the focus in this thread is on the 18% who reported mental health issues. The perspective is: 72% did not."

Hmmm...maybe middle managers don't make it to the top because they aren't good at math?
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:44 PM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


It makes some sense to me that blue collar workers would have better mental health, since the work might be physically hard but for many (plumbers and electricians for example) the pay is fairly good and you often don't have a manager peering over your shoulder. Plus actually building something probably provides some measure of satisfaction that a spreadsheet doesn't. Now, if you isolated minimum wage service sector workers, that right there would be a mess of depression and resentment.
posted by bracems at 6:37 AM on August 31, 2015


"Middle management means that you got just enough responsibility to listen when people talk, but not so much you can't tell anybody to go fuck themselves."

—Major Lieutenant Howard "Bunny" Colvin, The Wire
posted by FJT at 1:01 PM on August 31, 2015


I'm interested in practical ways that middle managers can collectively act to gain leverage over executives.

Mostly I think it's just their attitude and mind-set. It's not so much that they have leverage but they recognize that system has been setup to benefit those at the top and they work the system as much as they can to get their employees (IE: me) what they can. I imagine that they use a lot of arguments about being results oriented, low turn-over costing less in the long-run, and happy employees with good work/life balance are more productive and do better work.

It helps that I work for a bank so a lot of the manager have a background in econ, finance, and accounting and those that don't have that background work with a lot of people who do so I think there is more awareness of income inequality in general and they get that while they are towards the top of the 99%, they are still paid WAY less than they should be. Additionally, I'm in compliance so we're not a revenue generating department but, because it's a bank (and a bank that views it's regulatory compliance apparatus as a competitive advantage) it's not hard to sell upper management on keeping that apparatus working like a well oiled machine.

So I guess it's mostly a corporate sub-culture thing that is made a bit easier by the regulatory environment.

The other thing my bosses all do very well is give me the tools I need to do my job and then they just let me do it. They treat me like an adult unless I give them a reason not to (which is never). Down in the retail branch world where things are more sales focused and the employees tend to be MUCH younger, I don't know that the same thing is possible but in some respects I think that, in a lost of jobs, you can manage however you want so long as you're getting results. So it might just be as simple as middle-managers changing their perspective and their approach to their position.
posted by VTX at 2:06 PM on August 31, 2015


So it might just be as simple as middle-managers changing their perspective and their approach to their position.

Yep. Everything you just wrote is basically how I manage my teams.
Priority number one: the work gets done.
Made possible by setting realistic goals that are defined with the people doing the work.

I don't care if my reports take half-hour breaks and two-hour lunches so long as they meet their goals.

I am somewhat of an oddity in my field (IT), but as I've often pointed out in reviews: tell me the percentage of sick days on my teams. Two years as a manager, have had 15 reports in all now (so a "little" middle manager by some standards), and am still at 0% sick days. Including myself. I know teams where, in the past six months, on teams that are 7-10 people strong, there is nearly always someone out sick. Once every week or two. (Keeping in mind, this is in France, where sick days are paid and unlimited when less than 24 months straight, so people aren't afraid to go to the doctor to get them.) Meanwhile, yeah, I'm going on two freaking years, people. Go on, tell me that pressuring your teams to "work their hours" and "improve their productivity rather than resting on their laurels" is actually making them productive.

How do I manage upper management? I have a dual-pronged approach. First, I always talk about work getting done on time, and in budget. That's what matters when it comes down to it. Second, I don't tell them my teams are happy, because I have seen that go south in very bad ways. All they would have to do is ask my teams themselves, but they never do, so hey, that's on them, and we enjoy the fruit while also delivering. Win-win. I sleep very well at night.

My secret weapon, pulled out in only the most extreme of situations (but I have used it a couple times when asked to do shit they knew full well I had strong moral objections to), is "nope, you can fire me." I got promoted. What can I say. The nice thing about working towards a better world is that, when it works, it's pretty fucking exhilarating. Still, I wholly accept that one day it may end up in getting fired – but when I use it, it's not a simple tactic. Anyone who would fire me for not doing evil shit, is not someone I want to work for.
posted by MarionnetteFilleDeChaussette at 11:53 AM on September 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yowza, having no sick days is not something to brag about. People DO get sick; if they're not taking time off, then they're coming to work and spreading their germs. :(
posted by mysterious_stranger at 4:55 PM on September 4, 2015


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