Top executives and senior leaders experienced more burnout than regular workers throughout the pandemic, with about one in two managers saying they’ve contemplated leaving their role due to the stress, according to a recent report from Deloitte Canada.
Human resources managers and mental health experts warn that if companies fail to address the stark statistics and reassess their culture and policies, there could be significant consequences for Canada’s economy as senior leaders burn out of the workforce.
“Leaders set the tone, so their own well-being and resiliency trickles down to the rest of the organization,” said Zabeen Hirji, executive adviser for the future of work at Deloitte Canada. “If they’re not well, their behaviours will affect a lot of people and a lot of organizational outcomes.”
According to LifeWorks, managers reported lower mental health scores on average than non-managers in 14 of the 18 months since January 2021, when the human resources firm began collecting data.
In its “Anatomy of Work Special Report,” published this year, work management company Asana found nearly seven in 10 executives indicated burnout has affected their ability to make decisions.
“This can have a huge impact on an organization,” the report concluded.
Deepy Sur, chief executive officer of the Ontario Association of Social Workers, said for senior leaders, the mental toll of the pandemic continues to linger as organizations’ workplace policies are continually in flux.
“No leader has had to deal with creating a whole new workplace environment on the heels of a pandemic before. That’s … uncharted territory,” she said. “So we’re building that bridge as we walk across it. And that’s pretty stressful.”
Patrick O’Gorman, a former senior manager in the public service, said taking care of his employees’ mental health needs along with his own during the pandemic was a particular challenge.
“I was in middle management — facing both front-line workers and senior management,” he said. “I was stuck in the middle and getting it from both ends. And that leads to very easy burnout.”
As the pandemic wore on, O’Gorman fielded more requests from workers seeking increased flexibility. His superiors, meanwhile, wanted as little disruption as possible.
“There were really no resources available,” he said.
The lack of mental health supports for employees became even more apparent when O’Gorman’s depression worsened halfway through the pandemic. Senior managers didn’t know how to best support him and instead took away his responsibilities and isolated him from other staff members, he said.
“Most people just don’t really understand mental health issues,” said O’Gorman, who left his job earlier this year.
Huda Masood, an expert in human resource management from York University who studied leader stress during the pandemic, said workers can often sense when their managers are overworked and struggling, which can in turn impact their own mental well-being.
“Managerial mental health is crucial to the overall mental health of the employees,” she said. “Managers who experience increased job demands tend to propagate stress, and it trickles down all the way to the employee level.”
The impact of poor workplace mental health is immense — not just emotionally, but financially. It accounts for more than $6 billion in lost productivity in Canada and 70 per cent of all workplace disability costs, according to the Ontario Association of Social Workers.
In a report released Tuesday, Deloitte Canada made four recommendations for reducing burnout among senior leaders: reduce the stigma surrounding mental health; strengthen relationships between colleagues; enhance mental health supports; and rethink workplace organizational structures and practices.
This kind of workplace transformation can take years, Hirji said, but it is necessary, especially after the conversations on mental health that have come out of the pandemic. She hopes employers take the time to engage employees “like they’ve never done before.”
“They have learned a lot through this pandemic,” she said. “Hierarchies came down during COVID and employees really have so much knowledge and understanding of how things can be better.”
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