Think you know all about workplace burnout? HR experts say we still don’t know how to solve it


In the years since the pandemic started, awareness around mental health and burnout has improved in corporate workplaces. But according to Ottawa-based organizational psychology and behaviour consultant Christine Pothier, not enough companies are thinking outside of the box when it comes to solutions. 

“(Employers are) hearing everything that we now know about healthy workplaces,” said Pothier, owner of consulting firm Wayscape. “They want strong cultures, healthy cultures. They want work-life balance. They want all these things we now know are important, so they take action. But because they’re responding to the symptoms of the problem, those actions don’t have the desired intent.”

For many organizations, the problem is systemic, and without systemic change, Pothier said the issue will fester. 

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“There’s often a disconnect between intent and action,” said Pothier. “I see from some executives, especially those in large organizations, (that) there is a theoretical understanding of what’s causing burnout … but the actions that are taken aren’t those that can get to the root of the problem. It’s likely that that executive doesn’t actually understand what’s at the root of the problem.”

So what does Pothier think is at the root of the burnout crisis? 

Poor communication between executives and employees as well as a lack of leadership can be some of the biggest contributors to employee frustration, confusion and de-motivation, all of which can eventually lead to burnout, she said. 

A recent survey of white-collar workers by recruiting and employment agency Robert Half Canada showed that heavy workloads due to understaffing, lack of communication and managerial support, and a lack of resources and up-to-date technology are all major contributors to burnout.

The survey found that 42 per cent of Canadian professionals reported feeling burned out. Younger generations are especially susceptible, with more than half of millennials and gen Z reporting that they experienced burnout. 

According to Sandra Lavoy, an Ottawa-based workplace expert and regional director at Robert Half, there has been a 10-per-cent increase in self-reported burnout compared to last year. 

“With the economy being so uncertain, employers are being very conservative on hiring,” said Lavoy. “So heavy workloads and understaffing were the number one reason. Key positions are not being filled for 10, 12 weeks. People might be retiring, or they’re having trouble retaining staff. They’re not hiring as quickly as they should.”

Pothier said a successful workplace is one with “people who want to work,” but that can’t happen if those people lack motivation. And that motivation, she said, has to come from above. 

“We still manage our organizations the way that was designed during the Industrial Age,” she said. “That framework was designed for very process-centric businesses. With knowledge workers, especially businesses based on problem-solving and innovation, that doesn’t jibe. If we’re still managing people in a process-centric manner, it results in people working really hard but not knowing how what they’re doing contributes to the bigger picture.” 

Many leaders, she said, lack the skills to communicate what the bigger picture is to employees. In some extreme cases, she said leaders themselves may not know what the bigger picture is.

Other issues include internal barriers, like layers of bureaucracy and unnecessarily long approval processes that disincentivize decision-making on the part of employees. In those cases, Pothier said a lack of trust from employers can lead to frustration. 

All of these issues, she said, create risks for burnout. 

Some organizations ‘over-rotating’ on burnout

While some workplaces are struggling to address high rates of burnout, Pothier said others have overcorrected and created new problems for themselves along the way. 

“I don’t think, coming out of the pandemic where there was this new awareness, that we’ve struck the right balance between the psychological safety we want to provide our employees and the accountability that we need so that our organizations are successful,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve hit the sweet spot between those two things.”

While not as big of an issue, Pothier said she has seen it happen in smaller, people-centric organizations. 

“It’s tough for them; it’s the opposite problem,” she said. “Their actions directly address the needs of their employees, but it’s almost at the cost of the mental health of the executives.”

In these types of companies, she said it can also create an unequal workload, which can still lead to burnout for certain employees. 

“Those who are intrinsically motivated to move things forward are going to take on more and more responsibility until, next thing you know, they’re the person that the executive turns to more often than not,” she said. “They’re the ones that get things done and so they’re doing the bulk of the work.”

Addressing burnout starts with leadership and communication

Since the pandemic, Pothier said conversations about workplace issues have stagnated, especially in Ottawa. 

“We have given too much room to this question of remote work or come back to the office and I understand why we’ve done that,” she said. “But unfortunately, because we’ve spent all of our time debating what that work arrangement should look like, we never took the time to define what our culture should be. How should people behave to be productive, but not at the cost of their physical and mental health? We haven’t taken the time to define that.”

When it comes to addressing burnout, Pothier said leadership has a key role to play that starts with defining and communicating the company’s goals and the role each employee plays in reaching them. That’s something she said many employers struggle with. 

“Management and leadership are two very different things,” she said. “What I’m seeing in town is a lack of leadership in terms of inability to articulate vision and to give clear direction. I’m seeing a lot of executives doing things like crowdsourcing internally on what the strategy should be. You’re the leader of a company. You need to put your leadership hat on and provide a vision that people can rally behind.”

Purpose alone, which includes ensuring everyone is doing meaningful work, can be a major motivator for employees and is sometimes enough to break them out of the monotony that’s contributing to their burnout. 

But Pothier said empowering employees by removing internal barriers is also key to addressing frustration. 

“I’m still seeing decisions being centralized at the top, which means the people who are closest to the situation are disempowered to make decisions,” she said. “If you’re disempowered in your own area of work, it doesn’t take long before you start wondering, why am I here and what am I doing this for?”

She said it’s also important to recognize that the workers who need the most help are easy to overlook and unlikely to seek any kind of assistance. 

“We don’t think of two groups,” she said. “We don’t think about the high performers and overachievers, who won’t say anything. They’re going to think, I should be able to handle this and they’re going to keep working long hours and not take the time to think if it’s healthy. And I also think we need to pay attention to immigrants and the children of immigrants. They come from a different work ethic that is going to prevent them from thinking, this isn’t healthy. Those two groups are a risk category.”

She added, “There is no magic bullet and it’s not a single answer … but I have friends who have suffered from burnout. I’ve come close a couple of times. It’s such an important topic.”

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