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Burnout. The next epidemic?

30th April 2022

On Wednesday April 27th we hosted our 3rd Wellness In The Workplace (WITW) event.  This was our third in four years.  However this years event left me feeling quite unsettled about the state of the workplace for many of my friends, family, clients, colleagues, and workplace contacts.  I wanted to share my insights and opinions based on this week.

While the term endemic, epidemic, and pandemic are generally reserved for diseases, I’m using them in relation to the potential for mental health illness, particularly burnout.

What’s the issue?

A little over 6 months ago Harvard Business Review posted this article on “The Great Resignation” highlighting significant turnover in workplaces.

I had heard from people about challenges here and there, but had chalked it up to coming through the pandemic and gritting it out, leaning on resilience and preparing for better times ahead.  This week has completely shattered those perspectives.

Based on conversations with friends, families, and potential attendees to our Wellness In The Workplace, as well as those that did attend, it seems to me there is massive disruption in the workplace right now.

This was the most exposure our event has ever gotten thanks to support form our sponsors.  We reached over 20,000 people this year, yet it was our lowest attendance, and two weeks prior to the event we had one person registered.

3 quarters of the almost 30 attendees at our wellness event indicated they are short staffed. Of the more than 50 organizations I spoke to, some who had attended previously, most indicated they were short staffed, too busy, or would be too stressed to leave work for the day.

Some of our attendees who did attend our wellness event cited anxiety over the work they were missing.  Rather ironic.  The conversations I had also indicated there are a significant number of workers who are unhappy in the workplace.

Reasons vary from being overworked, to rigid work structures, management that are not engaged and understanding these issues, and mental and physical exhaustion from 2 years of challenging work conditions.

I’m seeing local restaurants closed a few extra days a week due to shortages, examples are a few of the Sushi restaurants in town, as well as the Taco Bell (don’t judge me).  I’m sure there’s more.  This is not endemic to Nanaimo, the Island, or B.C.

At the What If One (WIO) safety conference this week a delegate was sharing that a famous coffee company on Maui is now shut down a couple extra days a week because they can’t get staff to run the business.  Speaking to delegates at this conference there was a mix of surprise, concern, recognition but many were already aware of the concerns around short staffed workplaces, and workers burning out.

An observation made at our WITW event was that staff who are leaving aren’t necessarily leaving to get other jobs.  They’re leaving the workforce all together in some cases to take mental health breaks.  I heard of one young HR director quitting due to the stress of her job, and going to Portugal for 6 months with her husband.

What’s contributing?

Ok.  So what’s contributing to these scenarios?  This is certainly not a research article, this is an opinion article, and here’s my opinion:

  • Short staffed workplaces due to workers off with COVID, and no drop in production.
  • In some cases workplaces have seen consistent drops in employee numbers over the last year, including a client of mine, yet production numbers have remained the same.

  • An increased awareness of the benefits of working from home, but the call back to offices in many businesses is creating friction between employers and employees
  • There is a rigid work structure still in place in many workplaces that doesn’t allow for an effective balancing of home and work life.
  • Housing is also creating additional strain.  When asked at our event about how many people in the room know someone who was struggling with housing right now almost the entire room put their hand up.
  • Lack of rental properties, or homes to buy, the cost of rental properties, or homes to buy is a concern for the community, however it’s also a barrier to employment.
  • Personally I’ve had challenges recruiting off island workers to work for me, and having your own home here in Nanaimo at the time of hiring is almost a condition of employment.
  • We have 5 generations of workers in the workplace each with different expectations of what work is, what the workplace should be, and what wellness at work is (nonsense, essential, or somewhere in between)
    • Traditionalists – born 1927–to-1946.
    • Baby Boomers – born 1947-to-1964.
    • Generation X – born 1965-to-1980.
    • Millennials (Gen Y) – born 1981-to-2000.
    • Generation Z – born 2001-to-2020.

What’s the consequence?

These are some of the consequences of the above concerns that I have come across, and that I am considering:

  • Much of our workforce may be retiring and this may create opportunities, and gaps
    • A loss of knowledge
    • Too many positions to fill with limited workforce
    • Opportunity to do it different, do it better
    • Rethink the workplace with younger generations

  • Not understanding what different generations of worker expect from an employer can lead to assumptions, biases, failure to communicate, and friction and frustration
  • Not adapting to the these potentially very different expectations can lead to loss of workers
  • There appears to be a significant portion of workers who are willing to quit working in their workplace for their own wellbeing, regardless of work related consequences
  • As indicated some of these workers may not have the will or capacity to seek other employment
  • Our last sets of data from March show unemployment sitting at 5.1% which may not be alarming
  • This is a lagging indicator and may be about to change over the next few months
  • This indicator also does not show the level of satisfaction, or potential anxiety in the workplace
  • Many workplaces are indicating challenges with employment recruitment and retention
  • Many workplaces have had reduced income, debts, and productivity disruption during COVID
  • The resilience to weather additional strains such as the continued loss of productivity, revenue and staff may be limited
  • Consider the downward spiral and synergistic effects of the following:
    • The more staff lost, the more strain on existing staff
    • The more mental health issues in the workplace the less productive staff may be
    • Mental health concerns may lead to loss of workers in the workplace
    • Mental health impairment may prevent people from re-entering the talent pool
    • The less talent in the recruitment pool, the likely employers are able to replace dwindling staff levels
    • The more expensive the housing, the more employees will cost employers with reduced production, and income for those that are willing to work
    • Inflation rates have increased and are costing businesses and employees more in general beyond housing
  • I’m no economist, but in my mind I wonder if there is risk of recession if we continue to progress in this direction

What are some solutions?

  • The easy solution is the more rigid workplaces need to soften their workplace expectations
  • This will allow more work and home life harmony
  • The hard part is that may require adjusting production numbers, or service levels to realistic numbers based on your workforce capacity
  • This may mean less production, and revenue which is always a challenge and concern in the workplace (however if you lose enough of your staff you may be facing a collapse of your business)
  • There is also going to be a need to improve the focus on wellness
  • We also need to consider the real value of work:
    • While we all want the best price, we need to understand the need for a living wage
    • Because we can get the best price, doesn’t mean we should
    • We need to consider what we’re getting, business costs, fair wages, the need to work less
    • These all may impact how we price products and services
    • How can we shift our thinking from what’s the best price for me, to what’s the best value for me

  • Engage the workforce to ask for honest opinions on how staff are feeling, where their mental health is at:
    • This can be informally just asking a few team members
    • This can be an anonymous survey
    • Speak to your workers families for a broader context and different perspective
  • Ask the workforce what they need to get back on track if they’re struggling
  • Wellness related enhancements can enhance home and work life harmony and may include:
    • Regular non-work related check-ins in the morning
    • More regular one on one meetings between supervisors and workforces
    • Continued work from home setups where feasible (may reduce office costs, and keep staff happy)
    • Mandatory workplace breaks, making sure people are taking their breaks and not working through
    • Introducing enhanced breakrooms if you have an office (bring in games, guitars, make a no phones rule)
    • Provide longer breaks, and or more frequent breaks, especially if your workplace is fatigued
    • Core hours and flexible hours outside of core hours
    • In lieu working hours system to catalogue extra hours and convert them to time off
    • Reduced hours in the workweek
    • Half days on Fridays (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly)
    • Increasing holidays
  • A review of performance expectations and realignment of work related objectives and targets
  • An honest look at how you are managing equity, diversity, and inclusion and whether there are biases in your workplace
  • Regular team building days (Monthly, quarterly)
  • Networking events to discuss challenges and opportunities with other businesses
  • Fun.  There is an inherent human need to play, to laugh, and to have fun.  Bring it into your workplace.

Closing Thought

I wonder if we are on the precipice of a potentially cataclysmic, and critical shift in how we work.  That if employers don’t listen to, and adjust to, the needs of their workers, they may lose enough of them that businesses become unsustainable.

I don’t know if the current situation is as dire as I feel it is, I do believe that from what I’ve seen it’s unsustainable as it is for the people I’ve spoken to.  And something has to give.

The bottom line is that without adjusting how we used to expect workplaces to function, we may lose the fundamental component of our workplaces, our workforce.

We may also be facing broader economic, and social challenges within our communities, provinces, and country.  Is recession a consideration with continued inflation, rising interest rates, and a housing and opioid crisis during a pandemic that isn’t over?   Is employee burnout the next big “demic” we need to worry about?

I’m seriously concerned that it is.

The good news, is that we have the tools to prevent it.

We have a workforce, and we have the opportunity to engage, listen, and act.

Can we instead of carrying on status quo with our heads in the sand, use this as incentive introduce a new way of working for many that also increases work life harmony, productivity, and value in the workplace?

We have the opportunity to change.  Do we want it?

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