Work Life

Are You My Momager?

Millennial bosses — particularly women — feel responsible for their employees' well-being as well as their work.

Written by Charlotte Cowles
Originally Published: 

One Saturday last fall, Alice, 37, was taking her toddler to the playground when she received a panicked call from one of her direct reports. The employee — let’s call her Dana — told Alice a family member had attempted suicide, and she wouldn’t be available to work for the next few days because she’d be at the hospital.

“I felt terrible for her, and I encouraged her to take all the time she needed,” said Alice, who managed eight people as part of her role as a vice president at a pharmaceuticals company. “But then she stayed on the phone for more than half an hour, telling me all about what happened.”

Alice watched her son and husband play without her as she attempted to wrap up the conversation. “I wasn’t sure how to say, ‘I care about you, but you need to go talk to your friends and family and support network — which is hopefully not just me — about this.’”

In the following weeks, Alice’s regular check-ins with Dana were dominated by discussions of Dana’s personal life. “She kept wanting to talk about what was going on with her family, even though we needed to use those 45 minutes to discuss what she was supposed to be working on,” said Alice.

Since Alice became a manager over a decade ago, she has frequently struggled with the emotional investment that her direct reports — particularly some of the younger ones — seem to expect from her. “I often wonder whether it’s because I’m a woman, and a Millennial, or both,” she said. “I’ve thought about saying, ‘This is not the time or place to talk about these matters.’ But there’s a risk with that, especially as a woman, of being labeled as an insensitive bitch.”

Conversely, Alice knows that her approachability can be a strength. “I think it made my team loyal to me,” she said. “And they may have been willing to work harder because they felt a personal bond and connection.” Still, it was exhausting to be everyone’s dumping ground. “Especially when I became a mom, dealing with so many emotional dynamics with my team was particularly draining,” she said. “On some days, I felt like I had a toddler at home, and eight more at work.”

She recently quit for a job where she only manages one person. "It's a big relief," she said.

This phenomenon of managers feeling responsible for their employees’ mental well-being as well as their output — let’s call it “momaging” — has become a hallmark of the Millennial boss, particularly among women. Now mostly in their 30s and the largest generation in the American labor force, Millennials have developed a reputation for bringing sensitivity and compassion to the workplace, a stark contrast to the more authoritarian bosses of the Gen X or Boomer eras. It’s a byproduct of the “bring your whole self to work” ethos that many corporate cultures have tried to adopt in recent years, and that Gen-Z workers have come to embrace. (On TikTok, they extol the benefits of Millennial bosses as “the mom and dad we wish we had.”)

“On some days, I felt like I had a toddler at home, and eight more at work.”

Treating employees like humans is a good thing. And at this point, it’s a necessity — 60 percent of workers say that their job is the strongest factor affecting their mental wellness, according to a 2022 survey by the Workforce Institute at UKG, a human resources firm. Respondents also said that their managers have just as much influence on their mental health as their spouse, and even more than their therapist or doctor. But can managers reasonably fulfill such heavy personal responsibilities?

What’s more, the emotional labor of tending to employees’ mental well-being often goes unrecognized, especially from women. A 2022 report by McKinsey found that female leaders “are doing more to support employee well-being but face higher stress levels as a result.” That extra work has a cost: Women leaders reported higher levels of burnout, and were 1.5 times more likely than men to have switched jobs because their workload was unmanageable. To that end, the UKG survey found that 70 percent of managers would take a pay cut right now for a job that “better supports their mental wellness.”

Still, many managers see their empathetic approach as part of an important and positive shift. “My managerial style is definitely a reaction to my previous work environments,” said Olivia, 41, who oversees more than 40 employees across three offices. “When I was in my 20s, I had several jobs where the culture was very fear-based, with top-down management that didn’t like it if you asked a lot of questions. I would get criticized publicly if I didn’t do something to their liking.”

This hurt Olivia’s productivity; she never knew what to prioritize, and was scared to speak up or seek clarity on nebulous assignments. She also started to get panic attacks and had trouble sleeping. “People said not to take it personally when I got yelled at, but I spent all my time at work, so of course it felt personal,” she said.

When Olivia got a job with managerial responsibilities in her 30s, she was intent on doing better. “I knew that people didn’t perform well when they were treated the way I’d been. I certainly hadn’t,” she said. “I wanted the people I managed to know that I cared about them. So I made a point, whenever I was assigning a project, to ask if people had what they needed to get it done. I wanted them to feel invested and empowered.”

For the most part, her approach is working. She gets excellent performance reviews from her team, and her division is growing rapidly. But not everyone has responded to her momaging the way she thought they would. “A lot of the Gen Z employees expect this kind of treatment, to the point where they take it for granted, and sometimes I think they take advantage of it,” she said. “They’ll just disappear for hours in the middle of the day without explanation, and get defensive when I ask that they be accountable for their time. I worry about what’ll happen to them if they get another boss who isn’t so understanding.”

Then there’s the problem of getting emotionally enmeshed with her employees. “I’ve learned to not directly ask about people’s feelings, because sometimes that isn’t received well,” she said. “For example, I once asked a direct report if she was okay, because she seemed angry. And she told me that she didn’t want to be characterized as an angry person. That was a real learning moment for me — I was trying to be sensitive, but I needed to observe people’s boundaries, too.”

I can relate to Olivia’s confusion. When I was in my 20s, I had several bosses around my parents’ age (Boomers) who made it clear that my feelings were not their concern. The prevailing attitude was “just get it done,” with a fair amount of yelling if I didn’t (or even if I did; the yelling seemed to happen regardless). At one point, I worked at an office with a storage closet that was unofficially known as “the crying room,” which I learned after I went in looking for paperclips and found a teary-eyed colleague trying to gather herself in private. A few months later, I cried in there myself.

None of this was out of the ordinary. Especially in the lean years that followed the Great Recession, my peers and I (Millennials) felt lucky to have jobs at all, let alone decent ones, and that we should do whatever was necessary to keep them. All my friends’ bosses were just as demanding and ruthless as mine were, and we sucked it up.

“A lot of the Gen Z employees expect this kind of treatment, to the point where they take it for granted, and sometimes I think they take advantage of it.”

When I became a manager myself, in my early 30s, I vowed to create a different dynamic with my underlings. I took them to coffee regularly and asked about their lives. I cared about their morale and aspirations, and dedicated large chunks of my time to helping them succeed. Providing that support was rewarding, but it also took a lot of energy — not to mention time away from my own assignments, which would get pushed into the late evening hours. I eventually quit and went freelance, which has the huge advantage of allowing me to manage only one person — myself.

This type of overwhelm, and the resulting exodus from managerial roles, is inevitable in organizations that don’t have clear boundaries, said Holly Howard, a business consultant who helps companies navigate management challenges as they grow. “It’s great that workplaces are acknowledging that mental well-being is important,” she explained. “But there’s been a pendulum swing towards managers assuming the role of therapist for their employees, and that's not healthy either. Most managers are not qualified for that, nor should they feel like they need to be.”

To blur those lines even more, many of our jobs have assumed an outsize role in our sense of community and identity, said Ben Michaelis, a psychologist and co-founder of The Group, which offers executive coaching and leadership development. “People used to rely on more support structures outside of work, like religious organizations and community groups and family networks, but those aren’t as strong or common anymore,” he explains. “So companies are being expected to do and be more for their employees, on lots of different levels.”

Of course, it’s too much to expect that people’s jobs — and, by extension, their bosses — serve as the backbone of their emotional, social, and financial well-being. Most organizations simply aren’t up to the task, and ultimately, there’s an inherent conflict at play: For-profit businesses are focused on results that may not sync up with their workers’ happiness. Work relationships are always transactional, to a certain degree. “Of course, we know that when workers feel taken care of, and feel connected to their workplace culture, they stay longer and they work harder, and that helps the bottom line of the company,” said Michaelis. But it isn’t a perfect correlation; capitalism doesn’t run on good vibes.

Managers feel especially squeezed when they’re sandwiched between the numbers-driven demands of higher-ups and the personal needs of their direct reports. For Renee (not her real name), who leads a team of 11 people in merchandising for an e-commerce company, the strain is too much. “I’m very close with my team, and performance reviews almost broke me this year,” she said. “I had to give a negative review to a direct report who’d had a death in his family recently, and missed a lot of his metrics as a result. I really felt for him and what he had been through, but I still had to deliver some really tough feedback. We both cried.”

Still, Renee takes pride in her empathy. “When I was starting out in my career, no one advocated for me,” she said. “I would stay in the office late every night because the higher-ups would delegate everything and then leave.” Now, she wants her direct reports to know she has their back. “As a leader, I want my team to feel seen. I also want to understand what they're doing every day so that I can give them the tools and systems they need to do their jobs well.”

It’s a double-edged sword, though. “I’m incredibly burned out,” she said. “I have a lot of peers in the same boat — managing teams that we care a lot about — and we all wish we could quit.” She sometimes fantasizes about going back to the days when people weren’t expected to be so emotionally present at work. “I know that there are upsides to being authentic with our teams, but it puts a lot of pressure on everyone to be transparent even when they don’t want to be, and that takes a tremendous amount of bandwidth.”

Trying to relate to your underlings can also feel forced. “You run the risk of looking like you’re trying to be the cool mom, which can backfire,” said Howard. “Instead of saying, ‘I'm a cool manager, come on in and share your feelings with me,’ it helps to create defined boundaries. A strong structure actually helps employees feel safe, and provides clearer opportunities for them to be vulnerable or ask for help when they need it.”

What does that look like? “It starts with clear job descriptions and clear employee handbooks with policies around mental health and well-being,” said Howard. “It’s important for companies to think ahead and ask questions like, Do we give mental health days? If people are emotionally overwhelmed, how can they take time off? What are our healthcare stipends?” When management puts these protocols in writing, it takes the onus off individual managers who are confronted by an employee who’s having a hard time.

While morale is important, managers shouldn’t (and can’t) try to make everyone happy constantly. Nor should they try to fill the role of therapist or doctor. “If you’re a manager and an employee is dealing with something, you want to make sure that you’re working with their caregivers, but you don’t want to be their caregiver,” said Howard. For example, if a direct report is dealing with depression, anxiety, or a neurodivergency that requires special consideration, they need to have professional support outside of work. “Then their manager can work with the advice from that professional, and provide accommodations when they’re appropriate,” said Howard.

Perhaps most importantly, managers must receive that same level of support themselves. Hailey, 30, a communications director at a public relations agency, said that she doesn’t feel burned out from the emotional components of her job because her bosses (also Millennials, albeit a little older) take the same care and consideration in managing her. “I put a ton of my time and effort into guiding my team through tasks and communicating with them in the ways that I know they respond to,” she said. “For some people, that means sending them a Slack message to say, ‘Hey, I'd love for you to work on this.’ Others would prefer to have a phone conversation about it, or receive a tag in a Google sheet. I also take the time to check in with people and ask how they’re doing.”

Yes, it’s a lot of extra interpersonal labor, Hailey admits. But she thinks it’s worth it. “I know it’s very Millennial of me to take on more in order to support team members. But I also have other people on our team who support my work for me, too,” she said. “Investing in my team’s personal and emotional preferences actually helps everyone in the long run, because it supports their ability to focus on their jobs. I know it does for me, too.”

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