While reflecting on the most often-repeated words of the pandemic, a few tend to spring to mind: unprecedented, vaccines, quarantine and in the workforce — burnout. According to Gallup's 2022 State of the Global Workplace report, stress reached an all-time high for workers everywhere, with women consistently reporting higher stress levels than men.
This article will explore workplace burnout, including its causes, effects, and solutions. Psychotherapist Stefanie Richard, BA, MACP, LCTC, who is a part of the Inkblot network of practitioners, weighed in with her expert insights to help us better understand the problem of workplace burnout.
The modern workplace and employee mental health
It’s no secret the working world has undergone dramatic changes since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. To abide by social distancing mandates, about 20 per cent of the Canadian workforce adopted remote working environments, and as of spring 2021, five million Canadians were working from home.
Although the shift to remote work created a more flexible schedule for many employees, others experienced difficulties setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with co-workers. And for the workers who couldn’t do their jobs from home, such as healthcare workers, the pandemic exposed or worsened poor working conditions, putting them and their families at risk.
Richard notes that the pandemic also underscored the value of health, wellness and family time, which caused many workers to re-evaluate their priorities. This led to a record number of people leaving their jobs in 2020 and 2021, a phenomenon known as The Great Resignation. “People started to realize their health and family was really valuable, and they didn’t want to put themselves at risk for a job that would replace them at the drop of a hat,” she says.
The shift to remote work also highlighted the impracticality of commuting daily to and from the office. As a result, many companies have incorporated hybrid working models, mandating workers to work in-office a few days a week. Today, the Canadian workforce is a blend of hybrid, remote and in-office workers as most COVID mandates have been lifted. However, according to HR Reporter, 48 per cent of Canadians reported being more stressed at the beginning of 2022 than during the first lockdown period of 2020. What’s more, more than one in three Canadians (35 per cent) reported feeling burnt out at the beginning of 2022.
So, while the worst of the pandemic is likely behind us — workplace burnout is not.
What is workplace burnout?
Although we often hear the term “burnout” repeated in the media and popular culture, many of us are still unclear on what it means and how workplace burnout may differ from regular burnout. According to Richard, burnout is a psychological diagnosis that has the power to affect us mentally, emotionally and physically.
While we can experience burnout in any area of our life, workplace burnout is, as its name suggests, specific to our occupation. Richard explains that with regular burnout, we typically feel better after a short break or rest, but with workplace burnout, the issues tend to be more complex and linked to underlying problems that need to be addressed.
“Regular burnout is still kind of that fatigue, but you get a break, and then you recover. With workplace burnout, it goes a little deeper. It really has to do with the work you’re doing. Taking a vacation doesn’t always fix it,” she says.
How to recognize the signs of burnout
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of burnout, as listed by Richard, include:
- Sleep issues
- Low motivation
- Feeling incompetent
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent colds or illnesses
- Persistent fatigue/exhaustion
- Lower empathy levels than normal
- Missing work or being late consistently
- Rumination / persistent negative thoughts
- Self-isolating behaviours, such as avoiding social obligations with friends and family
The effects of workplace burnout
As many of us have witnessed over the past few years, workplace burnout often leads to people quitting their jobs in the short-term. However, Richard explains that the true long-term effects of the high levels of burnout we’ve seen since 2020 remain to be seen.
“In the short-term, we saw a lot of people resigning from their jobs, a lot of people going in and just doing their jobs but not going above and beyond because they just didn’t have it in them anymore,” she says. “Long-term, I think we’re still waiting to see the results of that because this is probably the most burnout we’re going to see in our society, so we’re going to have to wait and see the research.”
How to avoid workplace burnout
When it comes to implementing strategies for warding off workplace burnout before it becomes unmanageable, Richard recommends developing self-awareness so you can catch the early signs and be proactive. In addition, setting and honouring boundaries is crucial for employees and employers.
While employees have a personal responsibility to protect their time and take care of their mental health, there are steps leaders can take to set their team up for success, including:
- Honour boundaries
- Set realistic expectations
- Provide fair compensation
- Address workplace conflicts head-on and early
- Avoid contacting your employees when they’re off
- Manage employee workloads to ensure they’re reasonable
Treatment for workplace burnout
As Richard explained, there typically isn’t an easy fix for workplace burnout, and simply jetting off on vacation won’t fix the underlying issues that caused the burnout in the first place. However, there are a few different options employees can turn to if they feel the weight of workplace burnout.
Treatment options for workplace burnout may include:
- Spending time in nature
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Cultivating mindfulness-based practices
- Incorporating more enjoyable activities into your life
- Counselling and/or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Self-care activities (proper nutrition, sleep, movement, etc.)
- Focusing on life outside of work by fostering personal relationships
Richard also recommends addressing the topic of burnout with your manager early on so you can set firm boundaries and ensure your needs are being met at work.
Prioritize your needs and seek support from leaders
As we all take steps to be more conscious of mental health in the workplace, part of the solution will be supporting one another and prioritizing self-care. “A lot of businesses and organizations need to catch up to understand what changes they need to make,” Richard says. “If organizations can make sustainable changes, there will be less burnout and more awareness overall.”
Although business leaders are responsible for taking certain steps, Richard believes that to create real change and banish burnout for good, we need to address the problem from a societal level. “A change needs to happen at the societal point where people stop over-identifying with their jobs, glamourizing being over-worked and sacrificing their lives for their jobs,” she says.
However, the prognosis isn’t all doom and gloom. Richard believes that the past few years have made us all more aware of mental health concerns and what’s truly valuable in life. “I think at the employee level, people are really becoming more knowledgeable about mental health, and we’re seeing a lot of clients come in and talk about self-care and burnout. There’s more awareness, and people are addressing it more quickly.”
If you’re a leader seeking support for your workplace mental health strategy, book a demo with the Inkblot EAP team to learn how we can help.