We are finally, cautiously coming out from under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic—and many of us are burned out.

“The most common request from employers now is how to address burnout,” says Mary Ann Baynton, principal of Mary Ann Bayton & Associates, a workplace relations firm, and director of collaboration and strategy for Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, a resource for employers funded by Canada Life.

Thirty-five percent of working Canadians describe themselves as feeling burned out, based on a survey commissioned by Workplace Strategies and conducted in December 2021 by Mental Health Research Canada. The rates of self-reported burnout are highest in the fields of health/patient care (53%) and transportation (40%).

Shannon Buxton, president and owner of CompCall, a disability management firm based in Sherwood Park, Alberta, and a preferred provider for Benefits Alliance Group, confirms an uptick in the number of short-term disability (STD) leaves due to burnout. She also warns that we are in the early days.

“We won’t know how serious it is until people are back in the office. Employers don’t really have a sense of how employees are coping at home unless there are performance issues,” says Buxton.

Fatigue and irritability can be signs of burnout. In an Angus Reid poll conducted in January 2022, 48% of Canadians said they’re fatigued and 40% are frustrated. The Wellbeing Lab 2021 Workplace Report surveyed working Canadians in the spring of 2021, at the start of the third wave of COVID-19. At that time, 72% agreed that their levels of struggle increased in 2021. One in 10 admitted they are “really struggling” and 32% are “not doing bad, just getting by.” Their biggest struggle was caring for their mental health (35%).

The research also suggests that employers could be doing better to prevent, recognize or respond to burnout. For example, only a third of respondents to the Workplace Strategies survey agreed their company is committed to a low-stress environment. And the Wellbeing Lab found that only 26% of Canadian workers feel safe to share their struggles with someone at work. They are far more likely to reach out to a friend or family member (55%) first to talk about their struggles at work, rather than their boss (5%) or colleague (13%). One in five (22%) said they “would never tell anyone.”

“Just as we have normalized the conversation around mental illness, we need to be more upfront and open-minded about the reality of burnout. That it’s okay to ask for help,” says Buxton.

“It is important for employers to recognize that everyone has been working and living in a prolonged stressful period and have had to pivot many times to balance work and personal demands. Fatigue, anxiety, grief about different kinds of losses, and burnout are likely pervasive,” says Dr. Anita Gupta, a clinical, health and rehabilitation psychologist based in Toronto.

On top of that, the return to work for those who have been working from home will likely bring additional unique stresses. “Employers can take steps to support their employees by facilitating flexibility, valuing wellness, destigmatizing mental and physical health needs, and providing access to meaningful benefits,” says Gupta.

What is burnout?

While burnout is diagnosable by a physician, it is not a medical condition. Nor is it a mental illness. The World Health  Organization defines it as “an occupational phenomenon” that results from “workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Its three main characteristics are:

  • energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative feelings or cynicism related to work; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Many of those with burnout continue working and do not realize they are burned out, says Baynton. “They may think they are just struggling to keep up during stressful times. But stress is more about feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency, whereas burnout is experienced as hopelessness or apathy.”

As summarized in the Workplace Strategies website, signs of burnout include reduced motivation, increased errors, fatigue, headache, frustration and irritability. Employees may become suspicious or sarcastic. They may feel debilitating self-doubt, and take more time to accomplish less.

Unaddressed burnout can lead to mental illness and poor physical health. It negatively affects productivity, job satisfaction and workplace morale; it fuels turnover and increases the risk of errors and accidents. Employees may self-medicate with alcohol or other controlled substances.

Buxton emphasizes burnout’s insidious effect on the day-to-day work environment. “Burnout almost always results in people being irritable, with low tolerance levels. Conflicts and communication breakdowns can become a serious problem. Burnout has repercussions well beyond the affected employee.”

It can take months or even years to recover from burnout. For employees who cannot continue working, STD leaves are typically at least six to eight weeks long. “The first month is getting rid of the exhaustion. Then treatment almost always includes psychological counselling,” says Buxton. “Then it’s a gradual return to work, starting half days or short weeks, as employees rebuild their resilience.”

When it comes to resilience, Gupta is quick to emphasize that “it is not helpful to think of resilience as being ‘tough,’ as if you’re not impacted by challenge and threat. Instead, resilience is about being aware of your changing needs and accessing appropriate resources, internal and external, to address your needs.”

Ignoring those needs and “just pushing through” can increase the likelihood of making errors or working in unsafe ways. “The ability to recognize our needs is a strength, and work environments that value this ability likely benefit from higher-quality work,” summarizes Gupta.

Who’s more susceptible?

Overachievers with poor boundaries are at a higher risk of burnout. “The people who never say no are ripe for burnout,” says Baynton. “It’s really in the employer’s best interest to keep those high performers well. You may effectively be punishing them for good performance and increasing their risk of burnout when you ask, or even allow, them to take on more.”

Similarly, don’t try to change employees who keep their heads down and simply get the job done. “Slow and steady is critical to the foundation of the workplace. Don’t try to push them. Value those people who don’t rush to turn things around. Value those who don’t work overtime but get their job done,” urges Baynton.

How employers can prevent burnout

Good work-life balance is essential to prevent burnout. The pandemic disrupted that balance for many people; therefore, anything that employers can do to help re-establish work-life balance will go a long way.

First, however, employers need to raise awareness. “If we’re really going to address burnout then we have to start talking about it. Make it real for people so that we recognize the signs and take it seriously,” says Buxton.

An anonymous survey can be a good start to get an understanding of stress levels and areas of struggles, suggests Buxton. This can be followed up with small, voluntary group meetings to share results and discuss what the employer can do to help. “Focus on the small changes that can make an immediate difference. For example, make it a rule that when the office closes, everyone goes home.”

Here are more suggestions from Buxton:

  • Hold Monday morning staff meetings that review what’s left over from the previous week. Consider any challenges and shift workloads or deadlines if need be. “This really helps to normalize the idea of asking for help,” says Buxton.
  • If finances allow, hire a full- or part-time employee who floats between positions to help fill in during vacations or sick days.
  • Block off periods of time when there are no meetings, no phone calls, no emails. “Some companies have had really good success when they enable their employees to work uninterrupted for two or three hours a week. They use this time for tasks that never seem to get done.”
  • Start a cross-training program so that tasks can move easily amongst co-workers, based on people’s workloads.
  • Consider replacing casual sick time with one flex day a month to help employees juggle the demands on their time. “It allows employees to work on that work-life balance in whatever way they need.”

Health benefits also play an important role. Both Buxton and Gupta stress that annual maximums for mental health services need to be sufficient—and that typical maximums of about $500 fall well short.

“Stigma about accessing mental health care is down but accessing care can still be challenging. Inadequate coverage by workplace benefits plans is one of the significant barriers to accessing mental health care,” notes Gupta, citing the results of a survey by the Canadian Psychological Association and the Council of Professional Associations of Psychologists.

“The good news is that when organizations have increased their mental health coverage—for example, some have raised their maximum for mental health services to $10,000 per year—employees actually use it. These organizations report lower mental health disability claims and improved rates of return-to-work,” she adds. Updating their health benefits plan to include virtual access to mental healthcare experts is also a good move by employers to prevent and address burnout. “For many people, the expanded availability of online mental health services has been very helpful and has addressed some barriers to accessing care,” says Gupta.

For tips to prevent personal burnout, read 3 tips to prevent personal burnout.

Take 5 logo

This article is part of Benefits Alliance’s Take 5 for Health Benefits Initiative. Take 5 provides a deeper look at employee health benefits, drawing from the experiences of plan sponsors, subject matter experts and the latest research. The Take 5 newsletter is delivered quarterly to plan sponsors across Canada.