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Dr. Geoffrey Soloway.Handout

Dr. Geoffrey Soloway is founder and chief training director of MindWell-U

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization for the first time classified workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases.

Defined as a “prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors within the workplace,” burnout is a common problem that affects workers across all industries. Characterized by emotional exhaustion, feelings of depersonalization/disconnection, and negative evaluations of oneself, burnout can wreak havoc on employees, as well as have a negative effect on a company’s overall health and productivity.

Moreover, it is also damaging to the economy. Studies have shown that 500,000 Canadians miss work every week due to mental health and stress-related illness, which costs the economy $50-billion a year, when absenteeism and presenteeism are factored in. Obviously, employee burnout is bad news for business, and managers should be aware of its negative consequences.

So how can a good manager prevent employee burnout?

  • Check yourself. As flight attendants recommend that you put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others in the case of an emergency, managers should consider their own state of mind at work. By working on personal resilience, emotional regulation skills and self-awareness, a compassionate and mindful manager who has the ability to self-regulate will be more likely to support others effectively.
  • Recognize the signs of burnout. For example, if your employee complains of exhaustion, pay attention. Are they consistently working overtime? Constant fatigue can have major consequences in the workplace. From mere sleepiness to forgetfulness, employees and their work can suffer if stress-related sleep deprivation sets in.
  • Improve communication. Meet with employees regularly to discuss work-related issues, but also to chat about what’s going on in their lives outside of work. An ongoing, informal dialogue can build trust and confidence between a manager and an employee, and it allows the manager the space to check-in with the employee if they notice any unusual behaviour. If an employee is struggling, they will be much more likely to share their feelings with an attentive (and non- judgmental) manager who encourages open conversation.
  • Encourage mindful check-ins. Start meetings with a moment for everyone to notice how they're feeling and share one word to capture their state of mind; develop a team cue or catchphrase to help bring people back into the present moment when stress hits.
  • Encourage and support monotasking versus multitasking. Encourage employees to “go deep” when needed, and abide by boundaries set during these periods. For example, if your employee needs an hour on Mondays to do some distraction-free, heads-down writing, respect that time and refrain from booking meetings during the allotted hour.
  • Walk the walk when it comes to work-life balance and mental health. While at an organizational level, many companies boast of a strong emphasis on work-life balance, it’s often mere lip service when it comes to actually implementing policies that will help employees from burning out at work. Employers who don’t deliver when it comes to work-life balance and mental health initiatives will suffer in terms of employee retention. Especially as millennials flood the workforce, potential employees are looking at the mental health and wellness benefits offered by an organization before they sign up to work there. A good manager will enforce policies to encourage a healthy work-life balance, such as giving employees the option to work from home occasionally, and insisting that vacation time be used. When it comes to mental health, managers should promote healthy routines in the workplace, such as taking breaks for exercise and practising mindfulness. A recent study between Mindwell, the University of British Columbia and the University of Queensland showed a significant decrease in employee burnout and a significant increase of work engagement amongst staff at a Canadian health authority which participated in a mindfulness challenge.

Happily, in the past few years, we’ve seen a decline in stigma surrounding mental health, and an increasing number of organizations offering mental wellness programs. It seems to be paying off. A recent analysis by Deloitte Insights found a median return on investment of $1.62 for every $1 spent a company spends on investing in workplace mental health, with an ROI of $2.18 for programs that had been launched at least three years ago. Clearly, caring about your employees’ mental health is good for your company’s bottom line.

Keep that in mind when battling burnout in the workplace.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

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