Cross Country Checkup

Workers are feeling burnt out. Experts say employers need to listen — and act

Amid the most contagious wave of COVID-19 to date, and as Canadians approach two full years of living with pandemic restrictions and health precautions, many say they are hitting a wall when it comes to their mental, physical and emotional well-being.

'We're asked to do so much — and we're happy to do it, but it just gets hard': pharmacist

An essential worker gathers shopping carts in a grocery store parking lot in Toronto. Experts say that workers are feeling overwhelmed as we approach two full years of living under pandemic restrictions and precautions. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

For grocery store clerk Cameron, burnout felt like he was losing track of his days and the customers he's spoken to.

"It's when you put in one hour of work, but it feels like it's been five. It's when you deal with the third customer of the day, but it feels like a 30th," he told Cross Country Checkup. 

"Everything just feels more intense. Everything feels longer, feels harder."

In addition to his regular duties in the store, the clerk has taken on responsibilities, such policing customers' mask compliance, that he never expected to. CBC News is using Cameron's first name only over fears of repercussions by his employer.

He says worries about bringing home the coronavirus and infecting vulnerable family members led to heightened anxiety.

While he sees his colleagues as essential workers during a pandemic, he says too often grocery workers are forgotten.

"It's not a glamorous job. We don't solve COVID. We don't help cure COVID. We're not testing for COVID," Cameron said.

"But without us in COVID, what would happen to everybody who needs to eat?"

During the pandemic, pharmacists across the country have taken on additional responsibilities including testing for COVID-19 and providing vaccinations and boosters to patients. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Amid the most contagious wave of COVID-19 to date, and as Canadians approach two full years of living with pandemic restrictions and health precautions, many say they are hitting a wall when it comes to their mental, physical and emotional well-being.

For front-line workers who may be working longer hours or double duty to cover for sick colleagues, burnout is particularly acute.

"People have been putting in crazy long days," said Manjeet Lotey, an independent pharmacist in Edmonton. "We're doing all these shots and then … we still have a pharmacy to run, too."

"A lot of my colleagues are burnt out. All we talk about is some people regret coming into this profession at one point because we're asked to do so much — and we're happy to do it, but it just gets hard."

Employers need to lower expectations

Workplace health and psychology expert Laurent Lapierre says that many workers are simply feeling overwhelmed at this point in the pandemic.

"They have been facing what some have viewed as insurmountable demands," said Lapierre, a professor of workplace behaviour and health at University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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Fundamentally, burnout means someone is exhausted. And according to Lapierre, that typically manifests in three distinct ways: emotional, physical and cognitive.

Burnt out employees may struggle to control their emotions, perhaps experiencing mood swings or sudden tearfulness. Cognitively, some may struggle to do tasks they understand or become forgetful. Others may feel the physical effects of exhaustion.

Lapierre says that his suggestions for addressing burnout among employees may seem radical to some employers. Simply put, they need a break.

"They have to, if they haven't already done so, lower their expectations of their staff in terms of performance targets," Lapierre told Checkup.

A pharmacist adminsters a vaccination to a patient. Edmonton-based pharmacist Manjeet Lotey, not pictured, says that many of his colleagues are feeling the effects of burnout. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

He acknowledges that many managers may feel ill-equipped to address burnout by reducing work hours or output because of expectations from senior management or executives. But the alternatives are unsustainable, he said.

"It's that [reduction in work], or you work people until they either decide to quit and go somewhere else in hopes of finding a more supportive management team elsewhere, or people can get really sick," he said.

Lapierre warns that the risks of extended burnout could intensify anxiety, cardiovascular issues and thoughts of self harm.

Risk outweighed the reward: front-line worker

According to Dr. Rima Styra, it's important for workers to be open about burnout with managers. The clinician investigator at Toronto's University Health Network, who has researched and counselled health-care workers experiencing burnout during the pandemic, says being honest can benefit both the employee and employer.

"What you need to do is find a private space at a quiet time and address the issue and tell them that you're willing to work with them," she said.

Conversations about what resources are available to staff who are feeling overwhelmed, what priorities can be reevaluated, or adjusting shift hours and length could help address feelings of burnout. 

People who may be considering leaving a job because of burnout — "a major step," said Styra — should consult a family physician before taking that leap. A physician can help provide additional resources, such as mental health supports, or address more serious concerns.

"The family doctor can actually redirect you ... to a psychiatrist if need be, or maybe you basically just need to see a counsellor or psychologist to find some more coping strategies," she said.

"It might mean that you do eventually walk away from the job, but at least you've got resources in place as well for your own mental health."

A cashier wearing a mask bags groceries. Grocery stores, along with many other industries, are facing staffing shortages during the Omicron variant wave, putting pressure on some workers to fill additional shifts and work longer hours. (Natalie Maerzluft/Reuters)

For Cameron, who is also a student, the pressures of the pandemic have pushed him to take a leave from his grocery store job and focus on school.

"I could have easily continued working once or twice a week during school, but it just wasn't worth it to me," he said.

"The risk and reward ... was so skewed [toward] the risk."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Ashley Fraser, Steve Howard and Arsheen Shamaila.

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