For most of us, September 23rd marked the beginning of fall, the celebratory signal of sweater weather and pumpkin-spiced everything. But if you were a property manager, September 23rd was special because it was the very first National Property Manager’s Day.
On the surface, the holiday (created by real estate technology company MRI Software) seems fairly innocuous, like other days earmarked on the calendar that commemorate other professions, like International Accountant Day or World Teacher’s Day. These holidays don’t prompt banks and businesses to shut shop, but they do carve out a modicum of appreciation and promote the job at hand. However, National Property Manager’s Day does more than offer an excuse to bring cake to the office break room, the holiday itself stems from the sobering reality that property manager mental health is on the decline.
A head with many hats
Property managers are the crux of each building. A property manager is in charge of supervising property maintenance, upkeep, and tenant satisfaction. In addition to managing a group of residents, leasing staff, and maintenance personnel while enforcing rental restrictions, their responsibilities also include organizing basic maintenance such as gardening, mowing lawns, repairing roof tiles, and adjusting air vents. Real estate investors frequently hire property managers to take care of properties they do not live close to or do not want to handle themselves.
With so many plates to keep spinning, there’s an unspoken reality that property management is a hard job. Of course, there are plenty of other stressful occupations in existence, it would be futile to suggest otherwise. But the pressures unique to property management can make quite the dent in one’s mental health. Property managers tend to work over 50 hours a week, and property management is one of the more thankless positions. It’s not like property managers are swimming in messages of gratitude for the mundane tasks they do, like keeping up with the building’s maintenance up-to-date, not to mention that Hallmark doesn’t make a Precious Moments™ Thank you for collecting my rent! card.
Like many other customer-facing roles, property managers spend a lot of their time handling complaints. Most of the calls to the property manager’s office concern managing disputes, hearing that something needs to be fixed on the property, or the very sunny subject of debt collection. Tenant complaints can run the gamut, and as anyone who’s spent a minimum of ten minutes working in customer service knows, if someone has a complaint that needs dealing with, they’re likely to be angry about it. After the pandemic, that anger has boiled over, not just from tenants but from the real estate companies that property managers report to. Property managers needed to field ire from pandemic-induced issues like repeated work delays and navigate the new normal of leading from afar from their bosses just as much as their tenants.
Isolation and fatigue from the pandemic stunted social graces for millions of people, and much of that influx of incivility were pointed toward those working in the service capacity. Hans Steiner, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, child and adolescent psychiatry, and human development at Stanford University, acknowledged that rudeness towards service and hospitality workers had been on the rise. “People feel almost entitled to be rude to people who are not in a position of power,” he said. “Especially when they come at them and remind them of the fact that they have to do their piece to get rid of this pandemic.”
The pervasive sense that rudeness is on the rise is felt all over, including proptech industry leaders. Mandira Mehra, Chief Marketing Officer at MRI Software, noted that property managers are under even more strain now “because people just aren’t as nice as they used to be. You hear this anytime you talk to anyone in a customer-facing role, that the workers are dealing with angry people,” she said. “Property managers are already struggling with increased strain, and the pandemic only made their job more complicated. They’re toggling between multiple technology systems. They’re having to be an expert in spotting fraud. They’re having to be a collections agent to pick up the rent payments. All the while, they’re having to be that sunny face in the office that welcomes the residents.”
Naturally, soft skills are baked into the property management position just as much as hard skills, but when workers need to constantly manage their emotions in the wake of an endless sea of grievances, the soft skill strain takes its toll. So much so that emotional exhaustion appears to be the main driver of the high rates of property manager turnover. MRI found that 41 percent of property managers feel that handling frustrated owners and tenants are the toughest part of their job.
Mehra explained that turnover had already been high, but coupled with pandemic stressors, property managers often felt like they had been flung into their positions with little to no regard for their mental health. “Societally, our readiness to have a conversation about mental health has evolved, but during the pandemic, people were getting tossed into these situations where they’re on the front lines with little to no training on how to handle these difficult situations,” she said. “But I think the positive side is that there’s awareness and there’s a movement towards positive change, and that’s why we created the holiday.”
The tech stops here
Reports of unrelenting emotional toll and property manager burnout prompted MRI to look into property manager wellbeing further. Before formally creating the holiday, MRI consulted data from a number of sources, one of which was the National Apartment Association’s second Mental and Emotional Health Survey, which found some startling statistics. Although the rental housing business has seemingly paid more attention to mental and emotional health, 1 in 4 respondents is still unaware of whether their organization provides resources to support employee mental and emotional health. Additionally, almost a quarter of the survey’s respondents stated that they weren’t likely to remain in their current position at their current company within the next 12 months.
A lot of the sentiment that property managers have towards leaving their positions after a short period of time has to do with feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the workday to accomplish everything that they have to. Jen Picotti, Chief Learning Officer with Swift Bunny (the apartment industry’s first employee lifecycle feedback system) and one of the two authors of the NAA’s survey, told me that one of the things that were alarming was the consensus that property managers felt that they could not stay on top of the workload in the time allowed. “That feeling is increasing rather than decreasing, and that’s something we’ve seen in this study as well as our Swift Bunny Employee Engagement studies.”
Another reason property managers are under increased strain is that the deployment of new technologies has made the position far more complicated than it was just a few years ago. Picotti said despite the industry-wide celebration of PropTech and the availability of more tools to automate tasks, the reality is that tech is not necessarily lightening the burden. Property managers are feeling more overwhelmed and frustrated, even as these technologies are being introduced to handle those inefficiencies.
For a lot of companies, there is an apparent lack of staff and time available for property managers to receive the necessary training so that they can use the tools that are being thrown at them. “That’s one of the drivers behind high levels of turnover in the first 90 days,” explained Piccotti. “Property managers are being thrown into this frying pan, all this technology, but they’re not given time nor are they given enough mentorship to learn how to use these technologies. So it becomes overwhelming, and then they leave.” Tacking on the fact that there’s a direct relationship between property manager turnover and resident turnover, those realities look all the more grim.
It’s easy to tell property managers to take it easy if their workload gets to be too much. Often, the platitudes sound like “make sure to never take your work home with you when you’re not on the clock” and “treat yourself to a long weekend once in a while.” But more often than not, property managers don’t have the ability to take any time off if they desperately need a break. The survey uncovered that a lot of property managers feel that they can’t take time off because that burden would land directly on their co-workers. “There aren’t any structures or support systems in place that can allow for managers at any level the freedom to step away, and even if they do step away, they’re still checking their emails and taking phone calls from their team because they know that there’s literally no one else who can step in and do that,” said Piccotti. “It’s a problem that companies need to take on, and I would love to see what kinds of creative solutions companies come up with to enable their employees to take a much-needed break.”
Property management has become more complex than ever, and National Property Manager’s Day was established in an effort to raise awareness of the issue, as well as motivate all multifamily businesses to help property managers who are struggling with their mental health and workload. These staff members are essential to supporting effective operations and encouraging tenant retention, which means that they’re well worth the investment. Yes, penciling a party in the break room every 23rd of September is a nice gesture, but MRI hopes that it will galvanize companies to do more than have an excuse to eat cake but to give their property managers the support they deserve.