By Dr. Bill Howatt
Burnout is a negative consequence of employees feeling overworked, overloaded, overwhelmed, and suffering chronic workplace stress. Before Covid, the World Health Organization identified burnout as an occupational phenomenon.
Benefits Canada reported on a survey of nearly 7,000 people in workplaces across Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. in which 81% of respondents said their level of burnout was high or extreme.
"The top three reasons for burnout among Canadian respondents were increased workload, insufficient compensation, and mental health challenges. About 21 percent said the burnout was causing them to seek a new job, and 39 percent said they would consider leaving their current employer for the right opportunity."
Exhaustion is a pre-cursor to burnout
Employee exhaustion has become such a concern that the Ontario government passed the Working for Workers Act that takes effect June 2, 2022, to support workers' "right to disconnect" from employment responsibilities after work hours. This act encourages corporate leaders to make employees' wellbeing and mental health a higher priority at this time when approximately 30% of Canadian employees between the ages 15-64 are working from home, as compared to only 4% in 2016.
COVID continues to challenge employees personally and professionally. Many are spending more time feeling unpleasant emotions, and it's taking a toll on physical and psychological energy reserves. The challenges of blending our personal and professional lives are significant. Many are managing children's education, assisting older family members, managing their performance at work while trying to stay on top of their typical responsibilities at home. And many have suffered significant losses as a result of the pandemic.
Feeling strained and spending more time in unpleasant emotions, like exhaustion, increases employees' risk of burnout and other mental health issues, physical illness, and missed work. It wreaks havoc on the immune system, can cause inflammation to increase and antiviral immunity to go down. 
Our new world of work demands more
Giving time off to rest may seem like a solution to exhaustion, but it does not deal with contributing factors. And, while employees benefit from time off, vacations are not meant to be for recovery and healing. They are supposed to enable employees to enjoy their lives.
It is essential to take a wider view of the workplace to address exhaustion. Look at cultural norms, shadow culture (things that are encouraged but are not necessarily followed or applied by leaders and others in the organization), day-to-day behaviours and attitudes, workload, processes, and procedures.
- Plan to create a psychologically safe workplace - Develop a comprehensive strategy built on a Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA) continuous improvement approach for evaluating whether policies and programs are performing as intended and what ROI they are delivering.
- Do not assume. Guessing how employees are doing emotionally and mentally is like guessing how much is in the corporate bank account. Evidence-based assessment tools like the Mental Fitness Index (MFI) provide a baseline and advise employees and employers on managing mental fitness. The MFI also provides insights that will help you understand which workplace programs and policies are working well, those that aren't working at all, and those that might require adjustment.
- Set boundaries. Provide clear direction on hours to be worked per week, vacation time, after-work expectations, over time. Talk about how workloads are monitored and managed, and let employees know you care about their wellbeing and you're actively monitoring factors like exhaustion. Ensure your overarching mental health strategy includes a Worker Burnout Prevention Plan section.
- Set realistic expectations - Audit the work you've done over the last six months to a year. What has the pace been? Are people stretching themselves too thin to achieve unrealistic timelines? To a certain extent, the pandemic has forced this on many workplaces. However, to the extent that you can, you should proactively manage expectations. Not every project is urgent and important.
- Model the behaviour you want to see from others - Your employees pay close attention to what you say and do. If you advocate the importance of managing workload and disconnecting after hours but don't apply these best practices yourself, they'll notice. It can't be said enough; you need to walk the talk to affect lasting change.
- Listen - Surveys have their place. However, listening to employees' voices is critical. Circumstances may be hampering in-person Listening Tours, but you should still make an effort virtually if you can. Listening tours provide a safe and confidential process to meet employees one-on-one or in focus groups to gather feedback and insights about how their work is organized and managed. You get a sense of employees' thoughts and perceptions about psychological safety (i.e., is it a safe culture to speak up) and their feelings regarding exhaustion and burnout. This qualitative data is gold. It is unfiltered and gives you a more authentic sense of what is happening in your organization.
Creating a psychologically resilient workforce requires a long-term view, like implementing OHS for physical health. Achieving this requires a comprehensive workplace mental health strategy that recognizes exhaustion and burnout as serious risks. It also requires you and other leaders in the organization to pay close attention to your behaviours and make the energy and wellbeing of employees a priority.