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When managers ignore employees’ dissatisfaction and burnout, it can have severe consequences for the entire organization.Getty Images

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Ask Women and Work

Question: Should managers do something when employees express malaise, burnout or general unhappiness with work? In my organization, when a staff member tells a manager that we’re not doing well or are feeling overwhelmed, the response is generally the verbal equivalent of a shrug. We’re left with the message that either it’s not as bad as we think it is and we should grow up a little, or it’s not the manager’s responsibility to do anything about it. We the employees disagree! Shouldn’t managers respond to or assist with their staff members’ dissatisfaction?

We asked Julie McCarthy, professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management, to tackle this one:

My answer is a strong yes; it’s essential that leaders and managers respond when employees are experiencing stress, malaise and burnout. We know from evidence-based research that ignoring or downplaying it can have severe consequences, not just for the individual employee, but for the manager and the organization as a whole. An employee’s physical and mental health may be at risk, ranging from headaches to depression to heart problems. Over time, we know that stress and burnout can lead to poor performance and cause physical or mental withdrawal from the organization.

We also know that strong leadership is about expressing empathy, caring and making sure our people are motivated and engaged. There’s a famous theory of leadership called transformational leadership, one of the most highly validated types of leadership that we know to be effective. One of the components of that type of leadership is called individual consideration, where the leader understands their employees’ individual needs, differences and capabilities and tailor their leadership to the individual. They’re not treating people as numbers.

This kind of leadership has an effect on the bottom line because it leads to higher levels of creativity and performance, speed to market, customer satisfaction, better recruitment and retention – there are hundreds of studies. It’s also ethically the right thing to do.

If your manager hasn’t been engaging with you about your dissatisfaction or burnout, it may boil down to communication. In our busy worlds, we’re often inundated with all the things we have to do. We may express frustration or anxiety in the moment and not be as clear or intentional as we thought. It’s very important to communicate clearly to leaders when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and I think the first step is figuring out: What is causing me stress right now? What are the things I think the organization and my manager may be able to do to help me?

Also, don’t assume your manager doesn’t care. Leaders can be overwhelmed, too. It might be that they didn’t hear your message; you thought that you expressed it, but they didn’t pick up that this was something serious. It might be that they did hear you, but they’re just too busy to address it. Or, they may not know how to deal with it and may be thinking, ‘This is out of my wheelhouse.’

Write down as much as you can, then book an appropriate time to sit and talk to your manager about what can be done. Maybe you could have some specific asks. If you say, ‘Is it possible for me to move from X project to Y?’, they might say, ‘Absolutely, we can do that. I’m glad that you asked.’ You can turn something that might have seemed like a very negative situation into an easy win. Sometimes, it might not be an easy win, but you will likely get closer to some resolution when both sides are able to find the time, sit down and be intentional with the conversation.

Submit your own questions to Ask Women and Work by e-mailing us at

This week’s must-read stories on women and work

Indigenous content creators leverage big followings on TikTok to boost their businesses

If you’ve ever bought something after an influencer shared it on Instagram or eaten in a restaurant because you saw someone rave about it on TikTok, you understand how social media has transformed the way the world does business.

These platforms have created untold opportunity for creators and business owners, particularly those who might be under-represented in more traditional spheres.

Case in point? The four Indigenous creators you’ll meet in this article, who have harnessed the power of social media – in particular TikTok, the fastest-growing social app – to grow their ventures while also celebrating their cultures and heritage.

Read about these incredible women here.

A waste of good talent: Midlife women are revolting against organizations

One aspect of women’s experiences in the workplace that has received little attention is what happens at mid-age. Men are at the apex of their career at age 45 to 55, and many of them are looking ahead to retirement. Women on the other hand, for many reasons, have not had a similar ascent in organizations and with the kids grown want to focus more fully on their careers and the fulfilment it can bring.

But executive coach Lucy Ryan’s research suggests as women grapple with the possibilities, they are deciding to quit. “This is the female midlife revolt,” she writes in Revolting Women. “A revolt against the expectations of the full on, no flex, head down senior management norm. A revolt against the discrimination that just gets louder for women the older they get and a revolt against a patriarchal system that is changing at glacial pace.”

How “midlife check-ins” can help organizations prevent women from bolting.

Going back to five days a week in the office is like going from a computer to a typewriter

“It’s beginning to look a lot like 2019,” says Calgary-based talent and leadership development specialist Eileen Dooley. “Roads are busier. People are lined up to catch early buses. Morning breakfast events are happening. Even workout studios are offering 5 a.m. classes. These are the signs of what we thought had changed forever – the five-day-a-week, in-the-office work culture.

“Why? For many white-collar workers being ordered back, the reasons provided (even if it is only for two or three days for now) are weak.

“Perhaps even worse is the only people who want the five-day-a-week return are ones who ordered it – not the ones who have to follow it.

“So many workers believed that the remote or hybrid model they were following was here to stay. What happened?

In case you missed it

Newcomer women often struggle to pursue their careers in Canada. These programs are helping them succeed

When Rikhita Nair moved from India to Victoria, B.C., she had nearly a decade of experience as a PR and communications specialist working with startups in tech, e-commerce and higher education. Eager for a job, Ms. Nair says she applied “like crazy to just about anything that remotely matched my abilities,” focusing on marketing and communications roles. But her efforts didn’t result in any opportunities.

“I quickly realized that this approach wasn’t working out so well,” she says.

Ms. Nair says she was “mentally prepared” for a long job search, taking into account the state of the economy and layoffs in the tech industry. “But it became particularly challenging after eight months. The constant rejections in job interviews began to take a toll on my confidence. Sometimes, I believed I had performed well having reached the final stage of the interview, only to be turned down, which was demoralizing.”

Read the full article.

From the archives

EAPs offer confidential mental health supports, but stigma and fear prevent many from accessing them

Have you ever accessed an EAP?

A benefit offered through some workplaces, EAPs – or employee assistance programs – offer short-term, confidential counselling services to employees. These programs, which can be administered through video, phone, online chat, e-mail or face-to-face interaction, offer no-cost services related to managing personal difficulties, workplace stress, substance misuse, family conflict and more.

With Canadians experiencing higher rates of mental health challenges through the COVID-19 pandemic amidst ongoing strains in the health care system, EAPs could be a valuable option for individuals in need of help. The only problem? Those who could benefit from EAPs may not be taking advantage of them.

Ivona Hideg is an associate professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business specializing in organization studies. She says a key benefit of EAPs is the accessibility they offer – but their reach needs to be broadened.

Read the full article.

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