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Zabeen Hirji, an executive advisor at Deloitte, at a park near her home in Toronto on July 14, 2021.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The crushing pace and volume of white collar work during the pandemic, coupled with the intricacies of working from home, are pushing business leaders to the brink – and half are ready to leave their current jobs.

For months, white collar workers have been cracking from the double whammy of professional stress layered on top of pandemic-induced complexities, such as navigating online learning for children stuck at home. But new research from LifeWorks – formerly Morneau Shepell – and Deloitte Canada shows an acute crisis is brewing in this toxic mix, and it is one borne by executives and managers who simply cannot take it anymore.

Just over half of the 1,100 business and public sector leaders questioned, from organizations including Bell Canada, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and the University of Toronto, revealed they are contemplating leaving their roles, and almost a quarter are considering resigning outright. Many more are thinking of moving to a less demanding position or retiring.

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Their propensity to flee is rooted in something much deeper than the usual office grievances and politicking. After 16 months of high-adrenaline, high-strain work, leaders and managers are flat-out exhausted.

Top managers are often wrestling with the same stresses as their direct reports, and they also have to contend with additional strains, such as pressure from CEOs and shareholders to keep churning out profit and improve market share. On top of that, they have to navigate issues such as mental-health challenges on their teams.

“You literally can’t sustain it,” Paula Allen, head of research and well-being at LifeWorks, said in an interview. “You don’t want to deal with this anymore. You can’t. You’re exhausted. You fight and you fight and you fight, and then you fly.”

Early in the pandemic, many white collar workers felt they didn’t have the right to complain, especially those in industries such as finance, tech, law and accounting who largely had the flexibility to work from their homes or vacation properties. Many of these jobs have also been protected from the economic devastation induced by COVID-19 – in fact, a number of financial services firms are on track to report record years for profit.

But the pain being felt by business leaders is now so pronounced that Ms. Allen refers to it as something different altogether: trauma. And history has shown that after trauma, “people get to a point where they seek some very fundamental things,” she said. “They seek to get back control.”

This primal urge helps to explain why leaders are considering quitting or stepping into less senior roles, even if doing so doesn’t necessarily make financial sense in the moment.

If they don’t quit, their bitterness can ripple through the organization. “The behaviours that emerge under extreme strain, such as irritability and extreme perfectionism, may unintentionally negatively affect the broader workforce and organizational culture,” the research noted.

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Of the leaders questioned, the volume of work was the most common frustration. More than three-quarters of private and public sector leaders reported exhaustion, with roughly 80 per cent reporting they work more hours than normal.

Leaders are also buckling because of a pervasive stigma. As managers, they are expected to be better equipped to handle it all. But many aren’t – and they are terrified to say so in case they suffer negative career consequences.

Despite the recent push for leaders to be more vulnerable, they “only talk about [their struggle] after they’ve addressed it,” said Zabeen Hirji, executive adviser on the future of work at Deloitte and formerly the chief human resources officer at Royal Bank of Canada. The mantra tends to be: “I was really struggling, but I’m good now.”

“Leaders are not saying, ‘I need help now,’ ” she stressed.

Ms. Hirji said she fears the situation has reached a breaking point. The pandemic seems never-ending, with new variant threats constantly emerging, and work has endless logistical issues to navigate. The problem is, leaders are already running on fumes.

“It was very challenging to pivot to work from home en masse last March, but the next phase of hybrid working could be more disruptive,” she said. “It will be a ‘test-and-learn’ approach, as there is no playbook, so uncertainties will prevail.”

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As just one example, companies may start assigning days for each of their teams to work from the office this fall. Inevitably, that will not work well for everyone. But employees can’t complain to the CEO, so they are bound to nag their direct managers, who may have no control over the schedule.

The experts admit there are no silver bullets to fix all of these issues. This is a once-in-a-century pandemic, after all. But accepting that employees – from managers to the front lines – are struggling will go a long way.

“We are going through change with a population on edge,” Ms. Allen of LifeWorks said. “The likelihood that people are going to respond negatively is higher.” For many decisions, such as setting timelines for returning to the office, “it’s best to build in as much individual control as possible,” she said.

“I can’t overstate the fact that people feel control is being taken away, so they’re taking it back,” she added. Even if that means quitting.

Some may step away because they feel forced into it. A senior vice-president may report to a great group executive, but if the CEO is hard-charging, they’ll only find so much protection.

Ms. Hirji, though, suggests being proactive before it gets to that. Leaders, she believes, should take the time to figure out what they really value.

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“I think this is the great reset opportunity to really redefine success,” she said. “Success goes beyond the job, career, money. How much money do you really need to have a good quality of life?”

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