Combating Burnout: Experts Share Their Strategies for Mental Wellness
February 27th, 2023
Many of us juggle multiple responsibilities, including work, school, and family life, and have probably said we feel “burnt out” at some point. According to a 2022 report by Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC), anxiety and exhaustion for workers are at an all-time high, and at least one in three Canadian workers has experienced burnout. The causes of burnout and effective strategies for combating it was the subject of a recent panel discussion held by The Chang School at Toronto Metropolitan University.
- Dr. Jenny Jing Wen Liu, an Associate Researcher at the MacDonald Franklin OSI Research Centre, which specializes in veteran and military mental health, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, and Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University.
- Siobhan Stewart, a Black Student Success Facilitator within the Faculty of the Arts at Toronto Metropolitan University. She also works as a caregiver to a senior in the community who has custody of two grandchildren, and also works in the financial services industry teaching individuals about financial literacy, financial independence and becoming the director of their own lives.
- Dr. Gillian Strudwick, a Mental Health Nurse and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She also works as a scientist researching topics related to burnout.
Here’s what the experts had to say about fighting burnout.
What Exactly is Burnout?
The panel kicked off with Gary Hepburn, Dean of The Chang School, acknowledging that February, with its short days and chilly weather, “can heighten feelings of stress and isolation,'' common factors that can lead to burnout.
The first panelist to tackle the subject of defining burnout was Dr. Strudwick, who characterized it as, “a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress.” Over time, she said, burnout can lead to disengagement, a sense of hopelessness — even serious depression.
Dr. Strudwick categorized three common types of burnout: overload burnout, underchallenged burnout, and neglect burnout. Overload burnout occurs when individuals begin to overlook their own needs in order to fulfill work demands. Unchallenged burnout happens when individuals aren’t given proper opportunities to develop their skill set and become disengaged. Neglect burnout manifests when an individual finds it difficult to keep up with demands in an environment that has little structure or guidance, so they stop trying or give up on their tasks.
Factors That Cause Burnout
“When you’re constantly reacting to things, you’re wearing out your body’s systems,” said Dr. Liu. Some of the main factors that contribute to burnout include: a high workload, little perceived support, and a lack of purpose or connection to one’s roles. Oftentimes, the deciding factor in terms of whether a person experiences burnout or not is how supported they feel within their organization. Dr. Liu noted that sometimes burnout can manifest as apathy, however, neurologically, it means that the person “no longer has the capacity to respond.”
Identity can also play a role in how likely one is to experience burnout. Stewart noted that instances of burnout are much higher in Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Colour (BIPOC) communities, and her own position as Black Student Success Facilitator within the Faculty of Arts was created because of a 2020 campus climate report on anti-Black racism, titled “Confronting Anti-Black Racism,” conducted by TMU that identified a need for more specified resources on-campus to help Black students succeed.
All panelists acknowledged that remote work has an increased ability to cause burnout. "In some ways the virtual environment creates access…but the cost is connectivity,” said Stewart. “Remote work and school makes it hard to develop a sense of meaning and purpose in our roles,” said Dr. Liu. “[When we’re] not able to talk to professors face-to-face, it's the perfect storm for burnout.”
Ways to Combat Burnout
Panelists agreed that all too often, the onus is on individuals to prevent burnout from happening when there is a greater need for organizational and institutional support. As remote work becomes the new normal, Dr. Liu noted the importance of setting boundaries, especially in remote environments where people can be “bombarded by communications 24-7.” She recommended setting boundaries incrementally instead of all at once to help those around you to become acclimatized to them. “Maybe start with not responding to emails after a certain time and see how that goes.”
Stewart stressed the importance of “continuing to push on systemic structures that foster us working so individually at times.” Some of the tactics she has relied on include group chats with like-minded people who can help provide support. For example, when her ADHD makes it difficult for her to get a task done, she uses a tactic called “body doubling” which involves getting on a Zoom call with someone. “Once they’re on camera, I become super effective at doing the task I need to get done,” she explained. Overall, she said, it’s about “broadening our community and leaning inwards to understand who we are so that we can then lean out to connect with the right and appropriate individuals.”
According to Dr. Strudwick, if you are feeling signs of burnout, the best thing you can do is act on it right away. "The last thing you want is for it to progress to something worse,” she said. “If you don’t know if it's depression or burnout, that’s when it’s time to reach out to a healthcare provider and have that discussion.”