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The Workplace Epidemic

Burnout is a workplace risk


Employee burnout and career stress or business burn out as a worker overworked burnt from exhaustion as an exhausted icon for job pain as a work concept for overloaded workers in a 3D illustration style.

Workplace health and safety have always been an urgent concern for the health of employees and for the employer, since the loss of productivity and crucial factors like absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover cost business bottom lines billions each year. Concern for employee health and its impact on the organization have always been part of a company’s risk management.

The traditional cliché used to focus on conventional workplace health and safety issues like slips and falls, sudden and debilitating illnesses and doctor’s notes for recuperation time.

Melanie Fuller, director of Wellness at Alberta Blue Cross, explains that there are now updated, new pressures and priorities for business leaders and employees.

“For leaders, the list now includes economic uncertainty, attracting and retaining talent, engaging their workforce to support growth, training and talent development, diversity and the environment, social and governance, change management and the growing priority of employee health and wellbeing.”

The trends show a new workplace health issue that is much tougher to notice, to diagnose, to treat and difficult to manage. Mental health!

Recent Statistics Canada numbers show that about 30 per cent of short and long-term disability claims in Canada are attributed to mental health and the total cost from mental health problems to the Canadian economy exceeds $50 billion annually.

Tracking the possible causes of mental health in the workplace gets tricky, mostly because it is so individual and personal.

When it comes to recognizing and dealing with mental health issues at work, a sad, unfortunate but real negative challenge is stigma.

Healthcare professionals caution that mental health stigma is the most significant barrier which suppress and complicate employees from seeking help. Evidence suggests that in workplaces where pro-active “It’s all right, not to be all right” programs addressing mental health have been adopted, the stigma factor is reduced and employees self-report higher levels of resilience and coping abilities.

According to Fawna Bews, on the Working Stronger Team of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta Division, “One study of healthcare workers found that some major obstacles to workplace wellness include stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. These challenges are caused by heavy workloads, long shifts, a fast pace, lack of physical or psychological safety, perceived job security and workplace related bullying or lack of social support.”

As one specific, Fuller suggests that the pace and the speed of business have forever changed since the pandemic.

“It elevated a transcendence and significant values shift in how people live and why and where they work. It created an explosion in the digital health ecosystem and exploded the global well-being economy as people understood that value and importance of staying well, such as avoiding illness, social distancing, hand washing and other preventative behaviours.

“However, there are also new stresses and pressures for employees. Financial security, feeling overwhelmed as company goals and priorities may keep shifting, not feeling valued, personal concerns impacting mental focus at work, lack of career growth within the company, being promoted without training and other stressors.”

Robert Olson, Research Librarian at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Alberta Division notes that the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety lists mental health drivers in the workplace can include relationships, presenteeism, job burnout, harassment, violence and bullying (including mobbing).

Spotting signs of stress and depression at work can be difficult, because people respond in different ways and the reality is that some people mask their struggles exceptionally well.

Changes in work, sleep, mood, confidence, motivation, appearance, perceived substance use, relationships, patience and productivity are signs that someone may be struggling. Stress and depression can also show up as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems and diminished immunity.

While mental health issues in the Edmonton workplace may not be a new phenomenon, the incidence is alarming and some go as far as to suggest it is an epidemic. Although “woke” references have done away with dated references to “nervous breakdowns,” burnout is now a fact of workplace mental health life.

Often overlooked, experts warn that the signs of burnout are similar.

The World Health Organization (WHO) characterizes burnout as an increasingly common syndrome of unmanageable workplace stress. It also points out that employees who experience burnout will likely also experience feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from the job or feelings of negativism or cynicism towards the job and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

HR professionals explain that, although mental health in the workplace may seem like all-of-a-sudden and blameable on COVID, the situation has been lingering long before pandemic disruptions and the surge of work-from-remote trending.

Anecdotally, clinicians and HR professionals suggest that, partially due to an increase in awareness about mental health and the work that has been done to reduce stigma over the past 10 years, people are more open than ever about their stress, struggles and mental health.

“At the same time, it seems that people are feeling more insecure at work,” Bews says. “People say that changes to the workplace related to the pandemic, polarization on multiple issues including political and other divisiveness exacerbating workplace stress and financial stresses have contributed to a feeling of insecurity. People feel that they are putting more in and getting less out of their work.”

Although mental health issues are now urgent aspects of workplace health and safety and dealing with mental health issues is an urgent priority, the situation is not altogether discouraging and gloomy. Attention, understanding and awareness are encouraging new health trends.

“When organizations shift their thinking and embed well-being as a strategic business enabler and start prioritizing employee well-being, they see increased employee engagement, productivity and overall organizational success,” Fuller notes.

Keeping mental health as a priority is important for the employee and significantly impacts the organization. According a recent Work-Life Wellness report, 83 per cent of employees believe well-being is as important as their salary and 73 per cent would consider leaving their current role to work for a company that focuses on well-being.

Mental health in the workplace is now affecting how businesses are looking and adjusting their plans and strategies; and it’s undisputable! Building a supportive work environment that promotes mental well-being has benefits for everyone. It keeps the workforce strong and competitive with engagement, morale, satisfaction, retention, recruitment and productivity. It has been shown to reduce absenteeism, grievances, health costs, medical leave, disability and reduces workplace injuries.

The proactive and positive essential is spotting a mental health situation before it becomes a problem and, of course, doing something about it. Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace may not be easy but it is a critically worthwhile priority and a business win-win.