Posted by Lisa Aybar on February 26, 2021
Lisa Aybar

Employee burnout has become a major issue in recent years. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, concern was growing about mental health in Canadian workplaces. Statistics Canada reported that over one in four workers were highly stressed. Sun Life noted that mental health issues were by far the most common cause of long-term disability claims in 2019, and that the incidence of mental health claims had risen significantly in the last five years, outpacing every other type of claim. 

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC) initiated a series of polls to determine how Canadians were being affected. Its December 2020 survey found higher levels of anxiety (23% of respondents) and depression (15% of respondents) than at the peak of the first wave. 

The pandemic threatens to exacerbate existing mental health risks and increase burnout at work. According to MHRC’s polling, social isolation brought about by COVID-19 restrictions is a leading cause of mental health decline, as is the stress of working from home. To make matters worse, Canadians are not accessing mental health support or speaking with their family doctor at the same rate as before the pandemic. 

MHRC’s findings also suggest that the pandemic’s impact on mental health could persist after the coronavirus ceases to be an immediate threat: Canadians under the age of 55 are not as confident about their ability to bounce back from COVID-19-related challenges as older Canadians. The Mental Health Commission of Canada notes that consequences for mental health in the general population will be delayed, complex, and long term.

Knowing this, what can you do to protect the health of your employees and your business? Organizations everywhere are asking this question, but with the sheer volume of information out there, it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve put together a list of essential evidence-based tips for preventing employee burnout and leaves of absence.

What causes employee burnout?

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) defines burnout as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” People suffering from burnout at work tend to feel emotionally drained and unable to function in their job and other areas of their life. They sometimes experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping. Their productivity and motivation levels drop, and they feel helpless, hopeless, and resentful.

According to psychologist Marielle Simard, D.Ps., some common risk factors for burnout include the following: 

  • Overwhelming workload 
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Communication issues
  • Lack of support or recognition
  • Negative interpersonal dynamics 

For people to remain healthy and productive at work, explains Simard, certain fundamental psychological needs must be met: 

  • Autonomy (a sense of having control over one’s actions and the ability to act according to one’s values)
  • Competence (a sense of being able to achieve one’s goals, learn new things, and overcome challenges)
  • Belonging (a sense of connection with people) 

Not having these needs met causes stress and mental health issues that can lead to burnout.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve employee mental health and prevent burnout and leaves of absence.

Encourage good communication

So many workplace frustrations—role ambiguity, lack of recognition, unmanageable workloads—can be traced to communication issues, which is why good communication is key to preventing burnout. It’s a good idea to have managers schedule one-on-one check-ins with their team members to discuss questions and concerns. Doing this on a regular basis will give employees a chance to bring up any challenges they’re facing at work, allowing supervisors to better understand each individual’s needs and find solutions to problems before they escalate. These meetings also give team leaders the opportunity to provide feedback and clarify expectations about specific tasks and performance in general. This not only ensures that employees will be better equipped to do a good job, but also boosts their sense of belonging by helping them feel that their voice is being heard and that they’re being kept in the loop.

As Simard explains, good communication at work involves actively listening and asking questions until you really understand what someone is trying to say, and responding in a respectful, constructive way, without judgment. If you suspect that poor communication is causing problems within your organization, consider investing in communication training for your staff, such as a workshop on active listening skills.

It’s also worth initiating a discussion with your team leaders about specific strategies for improving communication during the pandemic. Employees working from home may be experiencing additional stress related to the challenges of communicating virtually: without the benefit of face-to-face interaction and nonverbal cues, messages can be misinterpreted and people may feel isolated from their colleagues.

Prioritize work-life balance

A 2019 survey by staffing firm Accountemps found that workers and their managers cited unmanageable workloads as one of the main reasons for burnout. Simard points out that overwhelming workloads and poor work-life balance negatively impact a person’s sense of autonomy, leading them to feel like they have no control over their job or the way they spend their time. While some overtime may be unavoidable during busy periods, it’s important to make sure employees aren’t constantly overloaded with work, forcing them to put in extra hours to stay on top of it all and breeding stress, exhaustion, and resentment. 

If long hours are the norm at your organization, it’s going to take a concerted effort from the top down to change the culture over time. You’ll need to investigate the reasons for all of this overtime and determine how to solve the problem—do you need to hire more people? Delegate tasks differently? Once you’ve taken steps to address unrealistic workloads, you’ll be in a better position to promote work-life balance. By discouraging employees from checking emails after hours and on days off and offering flexible arrangements for schedules and remote work, you’ll show them that you respect their time outside the office and that you’re recognizing their needs.

Offer advancement opportunities

Respondents to the Accountemps survey ranked career stagnation as the third-largest factor contributing to burnout, and this sentiment is echoed by Simard, who says that employees need to achieve their goals and learn new things in order to maintain their mental health at work.

Examine whether employees at all levels of your organization have opportunities to grow in their career and develop their skills. It might be helpful to find out why past high-performing employees decided to leave. Is there something you could offer that would have persuaded them to stay? What kinds of barriers stop people from advancing at your organization?

To show your employees that you’re invested in their success, you might consider paying for them to attend conferences or workshops to hone their skills. You could also implement a mentorship program to give junior-level employees the chance to learn from more experienced staff—this can be a great way to provide senior-level employees with a new challenge and renewed sense of purpose.

Recognize hard work

Simard’s patients experiencing work-related mental health issues often say things like, “I feel like my efforts are for nothing.” Not surprisingly, employees who don’t feel valued are less likely to stay motivated and engaged in their work, leading to diminished productivity and greater risk of mental health issues and burnout.

There are a number of ways leaders can recognize their employees’ hard work. While a simple “thank you” is sometimes enough to show someone you appreciate their work, you might take this a step further by highlighting specific things they’ve done that have made a positive impact on the organization, so that they truly understand the value of what they do. Public acknowledgment also helps people feel valued, so be sure as well to share your employees’ major achievements with their colleagues.

You may also decide to implement a more formal recognition program or to nominate a deserving employee for an internal or external award.

Ensure employees can get help

When employees are dealing with high levels of stress, their mental health can quickly deteriorate, putting them more at risk of burnout. That’s why it’s critical that your employees have fast, easy access to mental health support. Ideally, your workplace mental health program will take a proactive approach, identifying at-risk employees and addressing problems early on.

Dialogue’s mental health program does this by running email campaigns to promote tips and resources on topics such as stress management and work-life balance and by offering access to stress tests to identify early symptoms. This proactive approach takes the onus off employees who may be hesitant to ask for help with a mental health issue because of persistent stigma.

Access to treatment is another essential consideration when choosing a mental health program for your employees. Dialogue’s program offers fast access to virtual care: patients don’t have to wait weeks or months for an appointment, and they can speak with a therapist from the comfort of home. If your employees have convenient access to therapy, they’re much more likely to start and stick with treatment. Furthermore, unlike many employee benefits packages, Dialogue does not set a maximum dollar amount for therapy spending. Members are supported until remission by the same healthcare professional. Patients who have to pay out-of-pocket with other types of services or benefits run the risk of halting treatment before they get better, potentially leading them to take a leave of absence.

Because different employees will have different treatment needs, your mental health program should also provide access to a variety of healthcare professionals, including therapists, psychologists, doctors, and nurse practitioners. This multidisciplinary approach to virtual care is proven to produce positive patient outcomes: a 2020 study of patients enrolled in Dialogue’s Stress Management and Well-Being program and seeking treatment for common mental health disorders found significant improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as shorter leaves of absence compared to data from the Canadian Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report.

Supporting mental health at work is no small task—it will take effort at all levels of your organization. While there’s no short-term fix for preventing burnout, there are steps you can take right now to build a culture that fosters a greater sense of well-being for all employees. Adopting an effective workplace mental health program is a great way to start. Dialogue’s services have made a lasting impact on members’ lives, providing them with tools to deal with stress and build resilience and with the knowledge that they can get help whenever they may need it.

Learn more about Dialogue's workplace mental health program here. 

Topics: For Organizations