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A study commissioned last February by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health found that one in three employed Canadians are burnt out, and only half of the 5,500 Canadians surveyed believe their workload is manageable.fizkes/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

If you are exhausted and you’re not quite sure why, take heart: You are not alone. We’ve experienced the COVID-19 pandemic for three years now, and each stage of the journey has brought with it a new version of “tired.”

The first was an adrenaline-fuelled tiredness, a jittery overvigilance when lockdowns first took place, compelling us to abide by rules and stay safe.

The second was a turbulent kind of tired. The world opened back up, and then shut down again with Omicron – and we battled emotions that ranged from resignation (sigh, masks on again) to fury (trucks descending on Ottawa, horns blazing).

Now, with the worst of COVID seemingly behind us, we’ve entered what perhaps can best be described as a hard-to-define kind of tiredness: an existential sort of world weariness that, for many, has been hard to shake.

So why is a significant segment of the population still reeling from the pandemic and its echo effects? Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, offers a simple explanation.

“Pandemics do not have clean, neat endings. Dealing with so many changes at once was a mental challenge for us all … and the near-end of a pandemic requires an adjustment just like the beginning did,” says Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics, which was presciently published in late 2019.

That point of view is shared by Gabor Maté, a Vancouver-based physician and author of Myth of Normal: “We do not just leave a traumatic situation, like a worldwide pandemic, and not have reactions to it.

“What triggers stress in people is uncertainty, lack of information, loss of control and conflict,” Maté says. “You couldn’t imagine a better template for all four of those things than a COVID pandemic with all the confusing data that came out and the uncertainty that people sensed in their leaders.”

So here we all are, at the beginning of 2023, with the population more or less divided into two distinct camps: the first group whose lives, for various reasons, were minimally impacted by the pandemic and who are moving forward with COVID in the rear-view mirror; and the other group, which is still floundering and running on fumes.

Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic, calls the latter segment of the population the “chronically exhausted.” Into this category fall such people as health care workers, small-business owners and front-line service employees who are working harder than they ever have before – with no end in sight.

“This group has been in fight or flight mode for months on end. There has been no slowdown, no reprieve, which goes a long way to explaining why Canada has the highest level of mental-health claims we’ve had in years,” Moss says. (Claims paid out to support mental health have climbed 75 per cent since 2019, according to the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association report card, published last September.)

Dianne Ramage, an office administrator for an Ontario-based transportation company, is a part of this “chronically tired” category. Through no fault of her own, her workload has doubled since the pandemic.

“At first, I was laid off, which was supposed to be for six to eight weeks,” says the 55-year-old, who handles accounts receivable and payable. “Three days later, they asked me to come back to work when they realized the company could not function without key personnel.”

Ramage recounted how her job had changed when she returned: “We lost many experienced employees who took early retirement because they did not want to deal with all the COVID protocols, and we’ve had great difficulty finding good people to replace them.

“The end result is I’m doing many jobs I was not hired to do. I have not worked an eight-hour day in three years. It is always 10- to 12-hour days. That wears you down after a while.”

So it’s not surprising that a study commissioned last February by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health found that one in three employed Canadians are burnt out, and only half of the 5,500 Canadians surveyed believe their workload is manageable.

That kind of tiredness has long-lasting consequences that speak to the need to slow down at a time when the world has opened up and is telling us to pick up more speed. The burning question is how that can be done.

Maté says a good rule of thumb is to listen to your body and conduct a “compassionate self-exam.” That means to ask yourself such questions as, “What is it in my life that keeps me from fulfilling my intentions?” and “What is keeping me from acting on behalf of my own health?”

Once you’ve identified a few fault lines or stressors that are holding you back, he says, make a plan to put your needs first.

“If you decide making a change is a good idea, evaluate how big the change is and if that kind of change is reasonable and realistic right now. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself the same grace you’d extend to someone you care about or love who was facing a challenging situation,” Maté says.

Three months ago, 32-year-old Nathan Vatcher did a critical self-exam after reaching a breaking point in his career. He ended up taking sick leave from a communications job in Kingston.

“I had reached all the symptoms of burnout,” says Vatcher, who had gone from a gung-ho “yes person,” working nights and weekends, to an employee who was exhausted, detached, unmotivated and not very efficient.

His time off has allowed him to reflect on the roller-coaster ride of the past three years, and he decided that when he does return to employment, it will be to a job that accommodates a four-day work week – one that will deliver some balance.

“The perspective of my generation, the millennials, and a lot of my colleagues, who are Gen-Z’s, is that … no matter how hard we work, the goal posts keep moving. We can’t afford a house. Our wages don’t match inflation. There is a constant negative news cycle, and with climate change, we don’t even know if we’ll have a planet worth retiring to when we reach 65.

“I’ve done a lot of soul searching and realized I’d rather enjoy some of the perks of life now. I’m willing to work to live, but I’m not willing to live to work.”

Moss, who writes about workplace wellness for publications including the Harvard Business Review, says there are three signs of burnout: feeling depleted, feeling disengaged and uninterested in doing things you used to love, and high levels of cynicism about the future.

If you are experiencing one – or all of the above – she has a few suggestions. First, schedule time in your day, regardless of the pressures you’re facing, to disconnect and rest. Second, talk to your peers; more often than not, their support will validate that you are not alone. Third, if you’re angry, give yourself time to ruminate in that space, but don’t wallow in it.

“When the timer goes off, you’re done. Don’t allow yourself back into that headspace. You have to acknowledge those feelings in order to move forward. It’s all about setting incremental goals that will replenish you,” Moss says.

In the months and years ahead, the emotional legacy of COVID will become clearer. Taylor, for example, believes the mental-health toll on a global scale may not be apparent for years. But he is optimistic that most people will come out of this pandemic more resolute than they went into it.

“There is a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth which harkens to that old cliché, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’” he says. “The pandemic has taught us the importance of developing resilience and it gave us a deeper appreciation for the everyday things in life, such as our connections to family and friends.

“Those are the positive legacies of a very tough few years.”

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