Many Employees Have a Mid-Career Crisis. Here’s How Employers Can Help

March 20, 2018 Serenity Gibbons

mar19-20-crisis-staff
HBR Staff

Plenty of media coverage — and companies’ attention — is devoted to employees at the beginning and end of their careers, at least in my experience. Entry-level employees learning the ropes garner more than their share of managers’ time, and those transitioning toward retirement pull executives’ focus by necessity as they work to develop succession plans.

What about the wide swath of employees who are in the middle of their careers?

The “midcareer crisis” is a real phenomenon for many workers; research has shown that career satisfaction bottoms out when people are in the middle of their careers. For many managers, the problem is seeing those employees through to the other side.

Many companies and leaders have failed to develop plans for the employee who has progressed in his career but may not see many opportunities left at his existing company. Feeling overlooked or forgotten can be the nail in the coffin for someone who feels he’s given his best efforts to a company and is now grappling with a deep desire to change roles, locations, or missions.

As Josh Bersin, Deloitte’s principal, human capital, has noted, employees are assets that offer more value to their companies over time. The downside of losing these employees can be devastating to managers and their organizations: Losing the institutional knowledge, honed skill sets, and employee trust and cooperation that have been accrued by mid-career employees is costly — to the tune of 213% of an employee’s salary in one year, in some cases.

Here’s what managers interested in keeping their valuable mid-career employees can do:

Create lateral opportunities for those needing intellectual stimulation. Mid-career professionals who are comfortable with their level of responsibility or are disinterested in taking on managerial work — but who also find themselves bored or in need of stimulation — may need a lateral challenge. Doing something different can often shake the cobwebs off of a career that’s grown stale through repetition.

To make a lateral shift more palatable, companies should offer additional training or skill development, both internal and external, as well as shadowing opportunities and mid-career internships. Most compelling, perhaps, will be first crack at developing new divisions or roles within the company that would benefit from mid-career employees’ existing knowledge, pulling that know-how in fresh directions.

One mid-sized automation company I worked with had been spreading its social media efforts out among employees, adding posting duties to their existing tasks. When I asked executives if they’d noticed variations in the performance of different employees’ posts, they admitted, “We haven’t been tracking performance — we need to use social media, but we don’t really have time to focus on it.” We discussed the importance of tracking any efforts they were investing time in, and I asked whether they had any employees who were ready for a challenge.

A quick brainstorm led them to pinpoint a mid-career manager who had been with the company for nearly a dozen years and had always done high-quality work. Recently, however, she seemed less enthused. They approached her about shifting to social media, emphasizing the need to determine benchmarks for the company’s performance and develop a social media strategy for the brand. A year later, the employee was visibly re-engaged, the company’s Facebook engagement had improved by 1,100%, and the business benefited by having someone familiar with the brand’s voice running its accounts.

Develop an internal mission for those needing a deeper sense of purpose. Launching a partnership with a charity, founding a philanthropic arm of your company, or seeking pro bono work can engage the mid-career professional who’s grappling with a “What’s it all for, anyway?” view. Seeing that daily work is supporting a deeper mission can spur an employee to stick with it, and nearly 90% of companies that offer volunteer opportunities see a correlation between employee participation and increased engagement.

To make this more appealing to those in the middle of their careers, companies should accommodate workers’ schedules to include the work, give them a sense of agency in pinpointing causes or organizations to work with, and leading the work (particularly for those who are not executives or typically in the limelight and may not feel the authority to do so).

Salesforce originated the 1-1-1 model of giving, and it offers an example of a program with options for any interest an employee might have. The company’s volunteer opportunities include an “employee-inspired” donation program, pro bono volunteering, and volunteer time off (VTO) to provide help in other areas. More than 27,000 Salesforce employees have participated in its volunteer opportunities, putting 1.4 million hours of work toward missions near and dear to their hearts.

Encourage mentorship roles. If you’re surrounded by mid-career professionals who have the skills, attitudes, and critical thinking you’d like less seasoned employees to emulate, encourage your experienced employees to take on mentorship or managerial development roles.

To do this, companies should determine which employees fit this description and seem to crave more interaction with others in the organization; establish a structured program for mentoring/succession planning so employees can self-select or be nominated by their bosses; and offer continual training or touchpoints with mentors so they feel supported while they support others.

Remember that many mid-career employees would benefit from mentee roles of their own, too. Mid-career faculty, for example, mentor both students and peer faculty members, resulting in associate professors devoting 10 hours per week to mentoring. Full professors spend only a little less, however, as they mentor associate professors; schools like Johns Hopkins University directly encourage departments to include mid-career faculty in their mentoring programs. Mentoring opportunities — both mentoring and being mentored — are valuable for mid-career employees who have knowledge to impart and knowledge yet to gain.

These endeavors to support tenure-track academics can be replicated by companies. KPMG offers a very structured CPA mentorship program to ensure its newer employees succeed in detail- and compliance-oriented areas. With milestones built into the program — which includes both a regimented four-day boot camp and a more flexible mentoring community — mid-career professionals can see exactly where they need to guide newer employees. The program has a twofold benefit of keeping long-term employees immersed in changes in the industry while instilling successful work habits in entry-level employees taking over work mid-career employees are leaving behind.

Offer physical moves or enable remote work for those needing a change of scenery. Some midlife employees are grappling with a “grass is greener” feeling, seeking warmer weather, more skiing, or closer proximity to family. They are perfectly happy to keep doing the same work, simply in a different location; for these employees, remote work structures can scratch their itch to change their personal life while retaining their professional progress.

A relocation could also involve a new or expanded role for employees. If a position at another branch or in a burgeoning locale makes sense for a company’s future goals, approaching an experienced employee who still has years left in her career may flame her enthusiasm while solving a problem for the organization.

Because the latter can be trickier, especially for employees with families or community ties, companies should make these moves more palatable to employees by offering moving and other ancillary services to set up cable or internet or help employees find local doctors, vets, and dentists. Making the personal aspects of moving simpler can push employees to take professional leaps, particularly when taking into account the hidden costs of moving; because most businesses don’t have these resources in-house, a cost-effective way to provide these options is through outsourcing.

A midlevel manager I consulted with told me he’d been on the brink of resigning from his company when his boss asked him if he’d be interested in helping the company launch a branch in Atlanta. He was intrigued by the challenge, but the thought of uprooting his family — including two kids in elementary school — was less appealing. When he told his boss he wasn’t sure he could move his family 1,500 miles away, his boss connected him with the company’s partner organizations that help with logistics. The organizations pledged to find a rental in a good school district and find the lowest rates on services the family would need. Within a week, the manager had answers for his family and agreed to make the move. He said the new role was fulfilling enough that he could now see himself staying for several more years.

Workers at the beginning and end of their career are important, but overlooking those in the middle sets companies up to lose valuable knowledge and experience. To get these employees to stick with their employers until they get back to the happy second half of their careers, managers have to make plans for their mid-career employees so both the company and the employees benefit.

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