Mid-career burn-out

Mid-career employees and managers should be at the peak of their productivity. Aged between 35 and 54, they also make up the bulk of the workforce and companies rely on them. But these mid-careerers are actually the most disaffected workers and employers neglect them at their peril.

by Harvard Business Review, March 2006
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Described as "burned out, bottlenecked and bored", surveys suggest they have experienced the greatest decline in job satisfaction in the past decade of any group. Restless, disappointed and questioning of their lot, such 'middlescence' appears to be a bigger phenomenon than in the past, when individuals may have just knuckled down.

Nowadays they might well just leave their employer, taking their experience with them and leaving companies with replacement costs that are only likely to increase as workforce demographics worsen. And those who stay are, arguably, an even bigger problem, undermining productivity and reducing innovation. Re-engaging mid-careerers means making work more enjoyable and enriching, and helping them to find more meaningful roles - converting that restlessness into fresh energy. In many cases, the career revitalisation techniques are those that companies already use with their stars; they should just be applied more widely.

Two preliminary steps are advised: remove barriers to job mobility, whether not openly advertising jobs, or limitations on training; and identify that next tier of staff below your stars - the valuable contributors you want to keep - and then pay them special attention. The authors suggest a range of tools for helping retain and re-energise staff:

- Fresh assignments, often in different locations or parts of an organisation, let firms take advantage of existing skills. Assignments that work best are often lateral moves mixing old and new responsibilities.

- Middlescents often dream of complete career changes, but don't make the move because of the risks of leaving a comfortable job. Employers who can offer an attractive internal career change may meet this desire for change.

- Putting mid-careers into mentoring and other teaching roles can tap into their knowledge.

- Mid-careerers will often be overdue fresh (and refresher) training and may well have suffered disproportionately from previous training budget cutbacks or priorities.

- Sabbaticals can help rejuvenate jaded employees, yet few employers offer them. Many staff enthuse about the idea, yet feel they can't take one because of financial concerns.

- Expand leadership development programmes to include more mid-careerers.

Employers often complain they lack senior management candidates with the right experience. This way they would acknowledge mid-careerers' potential, and increase their commitment to the organisation.

Of course, companies may argue that employees need to take more responsibility for their own careers, but it's also in businesses' own interests to act.

Source: Managing Middlescence
Robert Morison, Tamara Erickson and Ken Dychtwald
Harvard Business Review, March 2006

Review by Steve Lodge

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