HR Update: ‘Leadership fatigue’ takes a toll

Kathryn Tremblay
Kathryn Tremblay

Trying to be a leader in the workplace when you’re exhausted is like running uphill on an empty stomach. With ankle weights on. In the pouring rain. 

In other words, it’s really hard.

Moreover, it’s bad for business. According to the 2021 People Management Report by The Predictive Index, 73 per cent of respondents with burned-out leaders were also burned out. It’s one of the factors driving employees to quit.

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“If leaders are just showing up kind of flat, with nothing left in them to be generative, to create strategy, to solve problems, that flatness is going to permeate the organization and it won’t be high-performing, either,” says Kathryn Tremblay, co-founder and CEO of Ottawa-based Altis Recruitment and excelHR. 

“For an organization to be high-performing and for a team to be high-performing, they need a leader who is energized and at their best.

“It’s a little bit like in a family home,” she continues. “I have a sign that my kids gave me that says, ‘If mom ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy’.”

Tremblay has seen a rise of what she calls “leadership fatigue” in the workplace due to the added pressure and scrutiny that managers have faced during the pandemic, whether struggling with employee and talent gap issues, trying to help workers deal with depression and anxiety, or helping staff navigate the future of the workplace. “All fingers point back to the leader.”

Tremblay believes leaders are coming out of the pandemic feeling not necessarily burned out, but definitely depleted. 

“Like everyone else, leaders might be running on empty at home and at work. While the leader is supporting their team members’ mental health, who is supporting the leader?”

Tharie Ouellette, a controller with Altis Recruitment, became overwhelmed while working from home earlier in the pandemic when she had to juggle her full-time job with caring for three young children. Pandemic restrictions prevented her from hiring professional caregivers or relying on outside family to help her.

“I hit a wall,” she acknowledges. “The list of things I had to do got longer and longer. I could never get to the bottom of it.

“I love the work I do and have a high capacity to take on more responsibility, but that’s what led to those feelings of exhaustion. I realized I needed to get better at setting priorities in each part of my life.

“I discussed with my leadership team how full my plate was and got help on reorganizing and prioritizing my accountabilities.”

Those discussions, she says, made all the difference.


Ouellette has since taken two family vacations and has become more intentional with her time by setting Zoom-free periods during the week. She’s also striving to elevate others on her team by reorganizing work to help them grow in their roles. “I don’t have to solve all the problems,” says Ouellette, who manages a team of about 10 employees in areas related to accounting and payroll.

Tremblay makes it her practice to check in on her team members by asking precise questions to determine how they’re doing. 

“Instead of saying, ‘How are you?’, which is so generic because Canadians always say, ‘fine’, replace it with questions like, ‘How’s your emotional health on a scale from one to 10? How are you juggling work-life integration? Is there a task that is becoming too much for you?’,” Tremblay says. “It’s about being more specific with the ask.”

Ouellette sank to a five during the pandemic. “I’m now a 10 on 10. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my leaders and mentors at work and the support at home, as well.”

Tremblay says it’s important to look at long-term solutions and not just temporary fixes when it comes to addressing leadership fatigue. Sure, a day of pampering is nice but learning to turn phones and computers off in order to go for longer walks in nature are things that are going to rejuvenate the mind consistently, she explains.

“It’s the intentionality around taking personal space to live our dreams, so we don’t end up at the end not having done anything for ourselves because it’s been all work and family.”

Leaders still need to find the proper balance and boundaries between work and non-work, says Tremblay, who suggests that night owls use the delayed delivery option when sending non-emergency messages to colleagues. Nobody needs to get dinged with messages as they’re getting ready for bed. “Otherwise, they can’t sleep because they’re spending time thinking about the thing that is on their mind.”

Some leaders avoid taking vacations — or work during their holidays — because time away only creates a heavier workload before and after the trip. What would help, says Tremblay, is better succession planning, which involves developing new leaders.

“As leaders, I feel that we don’t practice what we preach. We say to honour your mental health, to turn your computer off, but setting boundaries is a lot harder than it looks.”

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