Occupational burnout is an all-too-common condition. Many Canadian employees are driven to prolonged stress leave with symptoms including emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.
It’s a national concern for workers and employers alike. According to Statistics Canada, 27 per cent of Canadian workers claim to experience extreme levels of stress daily. In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized occupational burnout as a legitimate syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
A team of researchers at Concordia University in Montreal is investigating how interventions in students can inform prevention strategies for workplace burnout. Among them are Andrew Ryder and Alexandra Panaccio, who are both members of Concordia’s interdisciplinary Centre for Clinical Research in Health (CCRH).
“We study many of the most common health problems faced in Canada – obesity, exercise, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and workplace stress,” says Ryder, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate chair of the department of psychology at Concordia.
He says that the advantage of the CCRH is that researchers from a wide array of disciplines are able to meet and work together. It’s a holistic approach to well-being that transcends traditional attitudes to health research.
“The idea of the [CCRH] is really to put the sufferer at the centre and focus on analysis from genes and neurobiology all the way up to societal and cultural context,” Ryder says. “The important thing at Concordia is reaching outside academic tracks.”
Clues to workplace well-being in the experiences of students
One approach is to investigate how stress develops in students, an area of interest for Alexandra Panaccio, professor and associate dean, Accreditation and Faculty Relations, at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business.
Panaccio reasons that stress evolves in a new job in the same way that it evolves over the first year for students – these are both times when people have a lot of new experiences, expectations and stresses. In addition, many students balance studies, their personal lives and jobs.
She surveyed first-year undergraduate students at Concordia to examine how resilience – the ability to recover quickly from difficulties – impacted stress management and wellbeing.
“If we understand how people can be equipped to deal with these stressors, maybe there’s a way we can intervene early on for future employees,” she says. “We can look at what kinds of stresses are the most harmful, how things evolve and what resources can be useful.”
Panaccio also investigated how people react to the perception of work overload – feeling like they have too much to do without the resources to meet demands.
“Something I found interesting was that perceiving to have poor [work-life-school] balance contributed to negative emotions, [such as] feeling sad, guilty or anxious, but it was really the perception of work overload that contributed to emotional exhaustion, a component of burnout,” she says.
In other words, burnout happened when the students perceived that the workload was more than they could handle. Building resilience could help adjust more quickly to the workload, says Panaccio. But perhaps it would be equally effective to “develop time management skills [that] reduce the perception of having too much to do,” she adds.
How can cultural contexts improve mental health services in workplaces?
Concordia professor Andrew Ryder is also interested in stress and burnout, particularly in how a person’s cultural background can affect their well-being in school and at work.
Ryder is investigating how healthcare settings can better acknowledge cultural context to the benefit of both clinicians and their patients. He has done a series of projects with Health Canada to address barriers to mental health access caused by linguistic and cultural barriers, particularly cases where client and clinician have different first languages.
“What we've learned so far is that there seems to be a unique barrier to mental health care when the client has to shift away from his or her first language in order to speak to a clinician,” he says.
Ryder has observed that people in different cultural contexts can hold very different beliefs about what is normal versus abnormal when it comes to mental illness.
“We have evidence that cultural context can shape the experience and expression of symptoms, so that people in different cultural groups will present different kinds of symptoms,” he says. Some may emphasize physical symptoms when they are suffering from depression, such as fatigue, insomnia or headache, while minimizing symptoms such as low self-esteem or hopelessness.
The aim is to find solutions to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers in mental health care. Ryder is starting a pilot study to develop interventions that help migrants and minority undergraduate students adapt to the cultural differences in academic life in Canada. Ultimately, he hopes to develop a set of recommendations for both clinicians and employers.
“What’s needed is a flexible strategy that can work on several levels to determine what type of intervention individuals require,” he says.
Benefits of an interdisciplinary approach
Although Ryder and Panaccio work in different subject areas, their respective interests are interconnected. This spirit of collaboration across disciplines is a key advantage at Concordia.
“This is an illustration of why we have the interdisciplinary centre,” says Ryder. “[Both Alex and I] are interested in the social and cultural context that in some cases can cause people to suffer even more. Alex is interested in university students as emerging adults and future employees… [and] so my work will benefit from continued engagement with her research.”
Maureen McCann, an executive transition counsellor with Promotion Career Solutions in Toronto says that an interdisciplinary approach to formulating employer recommendations from both a psychological and management perspective is smart, because developing coping skills in the workplace is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
“Compared to previous generations, job stresses have mounted because there is less definition of work roles and expectations to do more,” she says.
The research being done at Concordia suggests that it is cheaper and more effective for employers to offer resources to help workers cope with stressors before it becomes a crisis.
“It is important to destigmatize those who could use some assistance. [Communicating] that it’s all right to seek assistance [requires] a clear and authentic message within the organization from the CEO on down,” Panaccio says.
Ryder agrees that an upfront investment in resources that can provide immediate practical help can head off burnout in employees.
“Early intervention and help and support can save an awful lot of time and hassle, not to mention the indefinable morale decline that doesn’t have a fixed cost,” he says.
To learn more about the exciting, interdisciplinary research being done by Canada’s leading researchers, visit Concordia’s Health Hub.
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