Symptoms of the times—occupational burnout, career fatigue, and mental exhaustion
Engagement 6 minute read

Symptoms of the times—occupational burnout, career fatigue, and mental exhaustion

Megan Orr | September 24, 2020

The pandemic has caused many problems, not the least of which is career fatigue from employees who are either frontline workers or working remotely suddenly. Leaders need to work to support their employees to prevent occupational burnout and mental exhaustion.

Most would describe 2020 as a difficult year. In a session from the Home Debate Club, the word most chosen to describe this year was “chaotic.” From raging wildfires to a global pandemic to worldwide political and human rights issues, 2020 has been chaotic indeed—and it’s no wonder that employees are experiencing more occupational burnout, career fatigue and mental exhaustion than ever before. 

It’s understandable and inevitable that the current state of global affairs impact work and employees’ levels of productivity and engagement. However, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of mental exhaustion and how to prevent and address it. Employees may be feeling disengaged from their work, at a minimum, but also feeling stress and burnout from personal circumstances, such as having to care for children or a sick relative. 

Benefits Canada points out that with so many employees still working remotely, and the boundary between work and home being increasingly blurred, people are feeling overwhelmed, and that “recognizing the symptoms of employee burnout in a physical office environment can be difficult, but in a virtual work world it’s even more challenging”. Signs and symptoms of job burnout, as described by Benefits Canada, include “behavioural changes [including] skipping work, starting late and leaving early, withdrawing from responsibilities and taking frustrations out on others.” They also note that some people may not show any signs of burnout at all, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t feeling it.

Career fatigue is defined by Michigan State University as “feeling physically or emotionally exhausted with a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” The university notes that many employees are experiencing mental exhaustion too, from (among other things) a lack of connection as well as uncertainty about their current career paths.

While it may be tempting to say that things are hard right now, not forever, it’s extremely important for companies to actively work to support their employees through challenging times such as these.

It’s important to be mindful of employees’ health and wellness all the time, but it’s particularly important right now with many teams still working remotely.

Employees may be experiencing higher levels of stress related to COVID-19, such as concerns about financial security, their general health and wellbeing, or about their future at your workplace. They also may feel emotionally drained from everything else going on in the world.

Employees value working for a company that cares about both their physical and mental health. How employees feel mentally impacts their job performance and overall engagement. If an employee feels exhausted before even starting their work for the day, it will likely be even more difficult for them to be productive. If your employees are struggling with chronic stress, their work-life balance or mental health conditions (such as anxiety or depression), there are steps you can recommend to them to reduce stress and limit career fatigue.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) uses the following five characteristics to describe “good mental health”: 1) ability to enjoy life, 2) resilience, 3) balance, 4) self-actualization and 5) flexibility. These five criteria are used in their mental health metre, which is an online assessment that individuals can take to determine how well they’re doing with each aspect of their mental health.

The quiz is a good place to start for your employees—the results are private—and it allows them to identify areas of their mental health that they can focus on. CMHA also has a wide range of resources for professionals that you can share with your employees. 

If your company offers health care options for employees, encourage them to take advantage of the different services available to them. Also, create a list of resources for them (e.g. names of therapists near your office that take insurance or phone numbers for helplines). 

Encourage employees to take breaks throughout the day as they need. You should also consider allowing one day a week where meetings aren’t scheduled, so they have a chance to socially recharge. Additionally, you can suggest that employees take time during the day to disconnect from their phones and the seemingly constant barrage of bad news in the world. 

In the same way that companies have been reaching out to customers to communicate what they're doing and working on while addressing concerns about current circumstances, your company should be doing the same for your employees.

Keep employees informed about any important updates that are relevant to their role, department, or the company as a whole. This can be done through emails, video conference calls, or even just informally through a messenger service like Slack

Schedule regular check-ins with your employees where you allow them to voice their concerns. It’s important to be mindful of all changes, both environmental and in employees’ personal lives. You should also keep in mind that as the seasons change, people may be experiencing decreased energy levels along with suffering from career fatigue.

Here's something that has been pretty consistent from all mental health resources across the board: Sticking to a routine during these uncertain times can help create a sense of stability, and creating healthy routines can help employees manage their feelings of exhaustion and stress. 

Here are some helpful steps recommended by the CDC that you can share with employees to help manage their stress:

  • Get enough sleep: give yourself a set number of hours that you know you need to sleep in order to be productive and stick to a nightly schedule.
  • Take lots of breaks, whether it’s to stretch or touch-base with someone in your support network. Breaks help keep you clear-headed.
  • If you can, try to go outside every day, either for some exercise or just for a short, relaxing walk.
  • If you’re working from home, set a schedule for yourself and try to keep to that schedule each day (i.e. same starting time, breaks and ending time). Consistency is crucial.
  • And finally, make sure you give yourself permission to enjoy your time off and fill it with things you love to do.

With everything going on right now, it’s important that your employees’ work life doesn’t contribute to their stress as well. Do your best to support your employees and create a healthy and understanding work environment. 

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