Most experts agree that the current situation is putting an extra burden on women (Getty Images/Brothers 91)
By Margaret Craig-Bourdin
Even if we have not have lived it, we all know the image: a frazzled parent is trying to focus on a Zoom call, while a young child tugs at their leg and another family member wanders around in the background, music blaring.
Too much? Absolutely. But, for many professionals trying to navigate COVID-19, it’s become emblematic of a situation that can lead straight to burnout.
Even for professionals without children, the stress of overwork is taking its toll. In a recent Monster survey, half of the respondents who are telecommuting because of the pandemic said they are experiencing burnout. In another survey, more than seven in 10 professionals said they are now feeling exhausted for several reasons, including a lack of separation between work and life (26.7 per cent) and an unmanageable workload (20.5 per cent).
This exhaustion is almost palpable for some. “Some of my coaching clients have been saying they are exhausted by a certain point in the afternoon and they’re not able to take in any more or produce quality work,” says Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching and author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of Crazy Busy. “Yet, they don’t realize they are burned out.”
According to one study, certain job functions, such as marketing and communications, finance and accounting, and business strategy/operations, are more prone to burnout than others. And some say the condition is more prevalent in the 25-to-44 age group. That said, no one is immune, including doctors. [See My depression was so acute I tried to resign. Now, I’m KPMG’s chief mental health officer]
But why is burnout on the rise now? After all, it has plagued the workplace for years. But it seems COVID-19 is amplifying the stressors that can trigger the condition. One study found that workers in the U.K., France, Spain and Canada who have been telecommuting because of the pandemic have been working an average of two hours longer each day.
Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, explains the situation this way: “With home work, the boundaries between work and life become even fuzzier [than they already were]. Employers are tempted to assume home workers are always on the job, with the laptop just an arm’s-length away.”
Chadnick agrees. “Some of my clients have been trying to pound through an entire day without stopping. They think there is an expectation that they should just keep going and going.” She adds that people don’t realize that with remote work, they don’t have the built-in breaks—a trip to the coffee machine, a conversation with a colleague—that are common in an office environment.
“But the human brain isn’t built to go full out with no stops,” says Chadnick. “It is important to build in small breaks to give your brain a chance to make connections and settle down. Without breaks, you will run headlong into the land of diminishing returns.”
Most experts agree that the current situation is putting an extra burden on women. “Even before COVID-19, life was challenging for people with young families,” says Chadnick. “But they had structures [such as daycare] built in that allowed them to divide up their day and go to work. Those helpful structures have been eliminated and many women are trying to juggle everything in a much more difficult context.
“If they have young children, for example, they are trying to squeeze their work in while the kids are napping because you can’t just tell a two-year-old you’ll be with them in an hour,” she says.
One mother who knows all about this intricate juggling act is CPA Elizabeth Chaina, a senior accounting manager with Integrated Merchandising Systems (Omnicom Group).
Chaina has been working at home since March with her two-year-old son and six-year-old daughter in tow. Not only has the pandemic brought an increased workload (the first few months were the most difficult, she says), but her two-year-old is not at a stage where he completely understands what is going on—apart from the fact that everyone is home all the time. “It is hard for him to comprehend why suddenly mom and dad cannot give him attention even though they are around,” she says.
Chaina adds that things have been a bit easier with her six-year-old daughter. “But there are plenty of times where she optimizes the situation to her advantage. For example, she’ll drag out her homework because she knows mom and dad are busy and find it hard to hold her accountable.”
As Chaina points out, there are generally certain periods in every month where people at her company work late, regardless of the pandemic. But, for the past few months, she says, there has been no real “going home.”
“Evenings and weekends are less busy, so I check email and track issues as it helps me manage my stress and increased day-to-day burden of childcare,” she says. “And for work that needs my full attention, I catch up at night once the kids are asleep.”
The “perfect storm” of reduced daycare, combined with COVID-related workloads and an uncertain future, is leading many to call for action at the policy level. As Stanford puts it, “The expansion of homework cannot become another excuse to delay necessary improvements in public childcare.”
Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson fellow on the future of workers, holds a similar view. She says Ottawa should concentrate on social infrastructure spending, with an initial focus on childcare, as a stimulus for recovery. The extra spending could mean that there would be more childcare workers employed directly by government and higher subsidies for parents. This would also mean higher training standards and higher wages for childcare workers.
As Chadnick points out, burnout prevention is a collaborative journey and employers have a major role to play by adapting timelines or offering flexible scheduling for those who need it.
But the employee also bears responsibility. “If your leader is oblivious to what is happening in your life, you need to raise your hand and discuss the situation in order to manage expectations,” says Chadnick. [See Pandemic-induced burnout: 12 ways to nip it in the bud]
For Chaina, awareness-raising has not been necessary because her employer already understands the need for flexibility. “They have been absolutely amazing during the pandemic,” she says. “They do put people first. Of course, we are expected to meet all deadlines, ensure we prioritize as needed and manage all the workload. My team has also been understanding and not complained about long hours they have worked. They have ensured the job gets done.”
At ConnectCPA, flexibility is built into the culture as well. As co-founder and CPA Lior Zehtser explains, “Throughout COVID, we have kept our usual philosophy: as long as the work gets done, you can take time off during the day for errands, to exercise, etc., without approval from management. We put trust in our team from day one and they don’t let us down. We also gave everyone from the accounting and tax team a day off in June—although we recognize that’s not too much considering all that was going on.”
Zehtser adds that many of his team members with spouses/partners have been able to make things work for the most part. “We did have one team member who volunteered to go on a reduced salary with a reduced workload since they weren’t able to work full days and we agreed. It has worked out so far.”
In her position, Chaina says burnout is an ever-present danger for her—pandemic or not. “But there has been an increase in the feeling of general anxiety over the past few months,” she says.
“When I feel overwhelmed, I take a step back and consider what I have ahead of me. I then evaluate what I can cut out, change, [or] push off to another time. This quick and easy step gives me perspective and helps me realign and cope.”
This article was first published by CPA Canada. You can read the original version here.