Canadians taking fewer holidays, earning less in 2020: report

With rates of employee stress and burnout reaching new heights during the pandemic as the lines between work and home have blurred, employers need to find ways to support employee mental health.

“As employers, we can’t anticipate or plan for personal drivers of stress,” said Joby McKenzie, managing director for Canada for Teladoc Health, during Benefits Canada’s 2021 Mental Health Summit. “However, we can better manage the workplace drivers of stress and together actively support our employees managing this.” 

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, three out of five workers say they’re burnt out and 82 per cent of Canadians are experiencing significant daily stress. Another study by Deloitte found 70 per cent of employees feel their employer isn’t doing enough to address employee burnout.

Read: Study finds burnout, stress symptoms on the rise 18 months into the pandemic

Broadly, stress is the brain and body’s response to some demand and can be a response to a temporary situation or a prolonged event. It can feel overwhelming and even lead to acute or chronic conditions. 

Burnout, meanwhile, is a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. McKenzie noted the idea of the workplace extends past jobs to other areas of work, such as caregiving, parenting or schoolwork. The syndrome can cause employees to feel exhausted, cynical and angry towards their work. 

“Those internal symptoms actually translate externally as well. It can be, for the individual, a reduction in productivity, an increase in errors, sensitivity to feedback and increasing absenteeism. So, really, it’s this balance of how do we help our employees manage these internal symptoms in order to optimize how they actually show up at work?”

During the pandemic, rates of burnout have only increased. McKenzie pointed to a Deloitte study of software company Limeade’s employees, which found 42 per cent were burnt out before the pandemic; since the onset of the crisis, that number has risen to 72 per cent.

Read: Canadian workers describing burnout as high, extreme: survey

She said the reasons include employees’ struggling with work-life imbalance, a lack of control over their work and expectations to meet unreasonable deadlines or be available at all hours of the day and lack of social support from colleagues and managers.

The most important thing employers can do to support employees who might be struggling with or heading toward burnout is to “communicate, communicate, communicate,” said McKenzie. It’s also key to encourage employees and even managers who are feeling overwhelmed to seek out support, she noted, as is creating a culture where people feel they can ask for that help without negative consequences to their career and feel they’re able to take time off, whether for vacation or just a mental-health day.

Creating a culture that’s supportive of time off can have two benefits for employees — actually being able to disconnect from work when they’re out of the office and the mood boost of booking a vacation and looking forward to it.

Helping employees set and enforce clear boundaries is another way to support their mental health, said McKenzie . While the hybrid work environment does give employees the flexibility to work when they want, employers should also support people in “taking technology breaks,” such as going for a walk during meetings or setting timers for short bursts of work before getting up from their desk.

Read: Pandemic blurring work-life lines a recipe for employee burnout

Creating that culture means leading by example “in a very caring way,” she said, by setting clear expectations about what’s required and when, supporting employees in making decisions about what work to prioritize and discouraging micromanaging and busywork.  

Plan sponsors can also ensure employees thrive at work by asking them how they want to grow in their role, what’s interesting for them to work on and helping them find the value in their work, noted McKenzie. She also suggested employers create opportunities for connection points across the organization, incorporate wellness check-ins to meetings and promote the use of mental-health benefits.

“At the end of the day, we as leaders have to walk the talk. It’s all of these small things that create a culture that we’re trying to build for people to thrive.”

Read more coverage of the 2021 Mental Health Summit.