Skip to main content

Experts say that recognizing the signs of burnout as early as possible is important.damircudic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

David Posen has seen many patients struggling with burnout symptoms over the years – and often, he says, the boss is at least partially to blame.

He’s met with patients whose managers send flurries of late-night e-mails, expecting an immediate reply. Or, some bosses don’t realize they’re assigning too many tasks for one person, leading to an environment where people feel like they’re always working but never catching up.

“A lot of times, bosses don’t listen well because they themselves are hassled, harried and stressed, and just running around like headless chickens,” says Dr. Posen, an Oakville, Ont. physician, stress counsellor and author of the book Is Work Killing You?: A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress.

“It’s unfortunate that, in some workplaces, that’s the culture,” Dr. Posen adds. “Somebody’s got to be the one to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t healthy, this isn’t sustainable, and this isn’t good for productivity.’”

Surveys show burnout is on the rise in Canada across many industries, particularly among those in leadership roles, driven by two years of unprecedented pandemic life and labour shortages that have put increased pressure on peoples’ personal and professional lives.

Experts say that recognizing the signs of burnout as early as possible is important.

Many recommend employees be upfront with bosses about feeling burned out – without being confrontational. Workers should also give examples of why they’re feeling overloaded and propose solutions instead of leaving them to the boss to figure out.

“You don’t want a situation where they’re dictating: ‘here’s what you should do,’” says Lissa Appiah, a career strategist in Ottawa. “You don’t need to tell them everything that’s going on, but enough so they can see how you’re feeling and what you’re going through.”

Ms. Appiah advises her clients to talk with their managers about their workload or how they’re coping before their burnout worsens.

She says employees can start by asking for small changes, such as shifting some responsibilities to someone else or tweaking their schedule, which can prevent the need for more serious interventions down the road, such as taking time off to recover from burnout.

“That early-on conversation can make a world of difference instead of waiting until things have escalated,” she says.

Ms. Appiah, whose work focuses on helping introverts shine in the workplace, says it can be particularly hard for such workers to speak up when overwhelmed.

“Introverts tend to be the person who just gets the work done and stays very quiet and expects our work to speak for itself,” she says.

“The first thing… is not feeling guilty,” she says, adding that it’s advice for everyone, not just introverts. “[People facing burnout often] feel like they’re going to be judged, that they failed or let the team down. They know what the workload is, and think, ‘if I take a few weeks off, it means someone else is going to have to do that work.’ They play out the scenarios and that guilt causes people to not address the issue, or even have the conversation to discuss potential alternatives.”

Françoise Mathieu, executive director of the Kingston, Ont.-based Tend Academy, which provides consulting and training to high-stress workers in fields such as health care, shelters and child welfare systems, recommends sending an e-mail to the boss informing them about the situation before having a face-to-face meeting.

The advance communication gives the manager time to digest the information, weigh the options available and seek help from up the chain of command if necessary.

Ms. Mathieu also suggests striking a compassionate tone, recognizing your boss may also be stressed, and reaffirming your commitment to the role, while also describing what’s going on and making suggestions about what would help.

“Having a gentle beginning to this conversation as opposed to a harsh startup,” she says. “You don’t want to come across as if you’re threatening people.”

Employees should also go into the discussion prepared with evidence of their workload and be “really concrete about what you were hoping for and point out that these are preliminary ideas,” she adds. “‘Say, ‘I’d love to have a face-to-face conversation so we can talk about this further.’”

Ms. Mathieu also recommends writing out what you want to say before the meeting, to have some notes if the conversation becomes emotional.

For some, it may also help to bring a close colleague for support.

Dr. Posen also believes there’s strength in numbers when speaking with a manager about burnout, especially if it’s caused by unrealistic working conditions and culture and widespread in the organization.

“Don’t go it alone,” he says. “Talk to some of your peers and see if other people are having the same problems you are, and then build consensus and go to a boss collectively, rather than one-on-one.

“It gets everybody off the hook because everybody’s feeling the same way but afraid to be the lone wolf.”

He also suggests working toward more open communication with your manager so that burnout symptoms don’t come as a surprise. He says more frequent and honest communication can help avoid getting closer to burnout.

“I talk to people about when to say ‘no’ and how to say ‘no.’ The irony is, you almost never use the word ‘no.’ When you’re overloaded, go to your boss and say, ‘I have all this stuff on the go here, is there any way we can defer this, or that I can get a little help on this?’”

Or, he says employees can just ask the boss to help them prioritize by saying, “‘Here’s what I’ve got on the go right now: Which of these things do you want to set aside to get [the other work done]?’ That way, the boss has some ownership.”