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Features Managing/Leadership Mental Health
‘Put your oxygen mask on first’: Almost all senior leaders are burning out, finds report

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March 2, 2023
By Todd Humber

Conceptual photo illustrating burnout syndrome at work. Photo: Adobe Stock

In January, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern resigned, citing the fact she no longer has “enough in the tank” to lead her nation.

Closer to home, Toronto media personality Dina Pugliese announced last month she was quitting her post on Breakfast Television after 16 years.

“The hours never got easier, and I find more and more, it has taken a mental and physical toll,” she said. “We’ve got to listen to ourselves. We know the importance of our health. I’m talking that to heart.”

And it’s not just high-profile leaders and celebrities feeling the strain, according to new data from Ceridian. Its Pulse of Talent report found nearly all senior leaders (92 per cent) have felt the strain of burnout in the last year. And for 40 per cent of them, that burn was “very serious or extreme.”


Michelle Bonam, vice-president of organizational effectiveness at Ceridian, said those numbers weren’t overly surprising — but the fact leaders were willing to admit it was telling.

“Leaders tend to be more pensive with sharing information,” she said. “So the fact they were coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, this is really impacting us’ means that that number is probably even higher than what we reported.”

Carrying a heavy load

One of the causes is simply the load executives carry, not just for themselves but also their teams.

“They understand that the lines between work and life have gone well beyond blurring,” said Bonam. “The boundaries have crossed over.”

If they manage remote teams, they’re in workers’ homes every day when chatting and meeting with them.

“(Leaders) are shouldering a lot of concern for how their employees are handling this,” she said. “They’re worried about whether or not it’s too much for them and whether or not they’re disconnecting enough or leveraging the tools that are available.”

Put your oxygen mask on first

Bonam turned to the skies and airline safety advice for inspiration on what leaders need to do — “put your oxygen masks on first.”

“If you pass out, you can’t help anyone else,” she said. “They need to take care of themselves as well as they’re encouraging their employees to take care of themselves.”

In short, leaders need to take the same advice they’re doling out to their teams.

Helping teams: Start with HR

The Pulse of Talent looked at responses from 8,800 workers globally. Among all workers, nearly nine in 10 (87 per cent) reported experiencing burnout in the last year.

If a leader sees someone struggling, the best first step is often to talk to the HR department, said Bonam.

“They can help you with the right words to use when engaging your employees, so that they realize you’re asking from a position of concern,” she said.

If staff aren’t approaching managers for help, it’s often because they feel uncomfortable or a need to just power through, get things done and not disappoint anyone, she said.

In those situations, all a leader can do is be open — “ask them how do you feel? How are things going? Is there anything you’re concerned about or anything you’re worried about?”

Bonam also suggests keeping a particularly close eye on the women at your company.

“Things are different today than they used to be, but women do still tend to juggle more of the responsibilities at home,” she said. “You may see more signs (of burnout) in your female population.”

If someone does come knocking, the biggest pitfall Bonam sees is leaders trying to instantly solve the problem themselves rather than steering workers to appropriate resources.

“Know what your company has available to help employees when they come and talk to you,” she said. For example, at Ceridian, the company offers staff two wellness days a year. Workers are “highly” encouraged to use them for things give them pleasure, peace or relaxation.

New ideas to combat burnout

There are new, big picture ideas that organizations can consider to help battle burnout. Top of mind is the compressed, or four-day, workweek and alternative work schedules, she said.

“We piloted a program, a compressed work week program that’s now going to be a permanent part of our alternative work schedule policies,” she said.

While many see the four-day workweek as a gimmick, Bonam said it’s more “situational.”

“Every company needs to understand the rhythm of their business,” she said, as there will never be one program that works for every firm or employee. “We want to make sure that we have something for everyone; not necessarily the same thing.”

Last year, Ceridian also offered a 24-hour wellness program for the first time.

“We had yoga sessions, we had meditation, in addition to various speakers on different topics,” said Bonam. “Showing that you’re encouraging wellness, and elevating and highlighting the wellness programs that you have are very important.”

Another idea to consider is what she called “Focus Fridays.” That’s an internal meeting-free day that allows staff to put their heads down and get work done. It all comes down to listening to your teams to understand their needs.

“You’re going to find nuggets of what they’re looking for, because not everything out there is going to appeal to your employees,” said Bonam.

Hanover Research conducted Ceridian’s Pulse of Talent research study online from Aug. 19 to Sept. 1, 2022. The study included 8,833 respondents with a margin of error of ±.78% aged 18+ who work at companies with at least 100 employees across Australia, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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