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Workplace burnout affecting the best and brightest

Those who shine the brightest are also those most susceptible to burning out - and the risk of flameout is growing for Canadian executives, workplace experts warn.

"A prime factor that drives people to burnout is feeling that there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. And many executives are feeling that pressure as never before," said psychologist Dr. Michael Leiter, director of the Centre for Organizational Research and Development at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

That's borne out in a survey released Tuesday by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which found employees with the greatest responsibility are facing the highest levels of stress on the job. In the survey of 2,737 Canadian workers, 18 per cent reported that their job was "highly stressful."

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The odds of having high stress were greatest if workers were managers or professionals, if they thought their poor job performance could negatively affect others, or if they worked long or variable hours, according to the findings that appear in this month's International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Chronic stress can lead to burnout, and can worsen existing mental health problems or physical disability, the research warns.

"The people who report high stress are the ones most invested in their jobs," says Dr. Carolyn Dewa , senior scientist and head of CAMH's Work and Well-being Research and Evaluation Program. "Employers should be very concerned with keeping this population healthy. From a business perspective, it is in a company's best interest to support these workers."

For executives, long, high-pressure hours ultimately drain energy and motivation, Dr. Leiter said. "Most organizations are more lean than they were before the recession and top people have fewer staff to delegate jobs to.

Unfortunately, as you fill days with more rote and demanding work, you reduce the creative part of the executive job. And with that, people can lose the spark and everything becomes more of a burden," he said.

"The demands on executives are growing and technology keeps people linked to the office even during their personal time. That will wear down even the most energetic manager because you can't sustain your energy if you don't have any recovery time." Dr. Leiter explained.

Avoiding burnout doesn't require sending stressed out execs to a retreat, he said. "It requires discussing the risk openly in the workplace and placing limits on expectations, he said.

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"One of the illusions people have is that putting in more hours will make them more productive. But doing that will tire you out and make you sick, and when you are sick, everything becomes more difficult," Dr. Leiter said.

Executives have to make a decision that there is only so much that they can do and eliminate or delegate non-critical work, so they get out of work at a reasonable hour and set up limits on working at home, he said.

"There is also a need for deep reflection on what you are accomplishing and what needs to change," Dr. Leiter said. That kind of reflection is most effective in a group, getting feedback from those you work with and coming to basic understandings about what may not be working and putting priorities on what is important.

"You don't necessarily throw out your core values, but look at reality and the opportunities you have to let go of old ways of doing things and reduce your stress."



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Portion of Canadian workers who say their job is "highly stressful."


Portion of high-stress workers who are managers or professionals.


Portion of highly stressed workers who are women.

Factors that raise stress levels:

Long hours

Unpredictable work days

Being on call

Worries about job performance

Source: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health survey of 2.737 workers in Alberta.

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