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Can your employees avoid the Great Burnout?

The latest LifeWorks Canadian Mental Health Index Report shows that despite a modest improvement in April 2022, the mental health of Canadians appears to have been “re-set” to a level well below the pre-2020 benchmark with a negative score being the norm.  Even more startling, the mental health score of managers is more than one point below non-managers and nearly one point below the national average.  Reported work productivity is down 11.5 points from before the pandemic.

The latest edition of the quarterly report from the global consulting firm McKinsey focuses on the Great exhaustion, where surveys indicated that 49% of respondents report symptoms of burnout.  McKinsey reflects that the real number is surely higher since the most burned-out people have likely left the workforce already. Burnout is not a new concept, but this illustrates the prevalence in our post Covid workplaces, leading to many coining the term The Great Burnout.

We all need a break!  If you were like me, I had my head down during the pandemic and focused on my work and the changing expectations, needs and ways of doing work.  It was a lot.  I’ve been purposefully trying to shift in the last few months, take more time, get some rest and get away from my desk (and video calls).

This is why when the book ‘Laziness does not exist” by Devon Price a social psychologist, activist and professor popped into my sight, it gave me reason to have a second look. Price insists that we stop trying to work harder. In fact, he mentions that our obsession with “productivity,” both in and out of the office, only makes us feel worse. “The Laziness Lie is the source of the guilty feeling that we are not ‘doing enough,’” Price writes. “When we feel unmotivated, directionless, or ‘lazy,’ it’s because our bodies and minds are screaming for some peace and quiet.” Instead of working, exercising or finding a new hobby, what’s wrong with taking a nap?

The book reflects that in Colonial America, Puritans formed a belief system connecting morality to work. “This form of Christianity taught that suffering was morally righteous and that slaves would be rewarded in Heaven for being docile, agreeable, and, most important, diligent,” they write. Americans (and I dare say Canadians) still believe that self-worth depends on work, Price argues, and that careers can be tied to our identities. We define people by their jobs—he’s an construction worker, she’s a hairdresser—categorizing them based on the work they provide for others. We also judge people on how they perform at their jobs; anyone who is let go must have been lazy, or no good. The pressure to “prove yourself,” Price notes, also takes a toll on communities of color and other marginalized groups. Rather than urging readers to adjust their working styles, Price suggests taking a step back, despite ever-increasing demands.

Taking a step back might not seem possible for many individuals or organizations, but if we begin to shine a light on the issue, we will be much more likely to address it.  We can do that for ourselves by taking the time we need; being bored, indulging in guilty pleasures, all the self care actions that we may be ignoring now that our way of life is shifting to a new busyness.

Many organizations are already recognizing employee burnout as real and not attributing it to laziness or unwillingness.  In November 2021, Ontario introduced a law that mandates workplaces to have a written policy that outlines an employee’s right to disconnect from their jobs at the end of the workday. A four-day work week is being looked at worldwide and countries such as Spain, Iceland, Scotland, New Zealand, and Ireland have already adopted this concept. The McKinsey report referenced earlier also stresses that hybrid work is here to stay to meet the flexibility needs of employees.  We will not all be returning to the office full time.  Our productivity may continue to be impacted but getting back to our pre-Covid productivity state will take awareness, time, self care and patience.  What can your organization do to support employee wellness and reduce burnout?

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