@Work | Tools

‘There’s no quick solution or a simple linear path’

Conquering burnout can be difficult for leaders who have the added responsibility of a team that depends on them

A Facebook IconFacebook A Twitter IconTwitter A Linkedin IconLinkedin An Email IconEmail

A man sits with his head in his handsEnergy depletion and cynicism are two indications that it may be time for a leader to address their potential burnout (Getty Images/Cecilie_Arcurs)

Workplace burnout has become a common topic of conversation for many who are feeling stretched and depleted. A study conducted by LifeWorks and Deloitte Canada in April 2021 revealed 82 per cent of senior leaders were reporting exhaustion, citing increased workloads compared to pre-pandemic levels and providing support for the well-being of staff as top stressors. Not surprisingly, more than half of the survey respondents (51 per cent) contemplated exiting their roles.

“What the pandemic has done is shine a light on the fact that we can all struggle from time to time,” says Kevin McGregor, director, programs for Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Ontario, which includes the Mental Health Works program. “Leaders are people, too, and going through what everyone else is going through. Plus, they have the additional responsibility of looking out and caring for their teams and making sure they are creating psychologically healthy and safe workspaces.”

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health defines burnout as “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” Typically related to one’s occupation, burnout can also amplify or trigger mental illnesses. Both burnout and mental illness fall under the umbrella of mental health, but their differences are important to acknowledge as burnout can be prevented while a mental illness, such as bi-polar disorder, cannot be prevented.

If you’re a people leader seeing the signs of burnout, here’s what you can do start helping yourself—today.


It’s important to remember that while employees are turning to their leaders for support, those same leaders are facing challenges of their own, even if they don’t feel comfortable expressing them.

The LifeWorks and Deloitte Canada study showed more than four in 10 respondents indicated self-stigma in accepting a potential mental-health challenge. In addition, 55 per cent of senior leaders were concerned about the workplace stigma and impact on their careers, if they had a mental health issue.

Denis Trottier, FCPA, FCA, chief mental health officer, KPMG Canada, understands the perceived mental health stigma first-hand. While moving up the corporate ranks, he constantly felt the need to hide his depression from others, fearing that his professional reputation was on the line.

“I chalked it up to stress, told myself that it’s normal for partners to feel extra pressure,” he says. Trottier has openly shared his own struggles with severe depression throughout his career and how approaching his office managing partner in 2006 proved to be a significant turning point in his long journey to recovery. He now applies his experience to speaking on behalf of others facing mental health challenges in the workplace.


Trottier cites a phrase that has often been used during the pandemic, “We’re all in the same storm but not all in the same boat. When it comes to mental health, it’s about what you have in your toolbox. But every toolbox is different depending on people’s circumstances.”

Hence, educating oneself on the warning signs of burnout is a crucial first step. According to the World Health Organization, these symptoms can include: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to the job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Trottier also points to the Mental Health Continuum Model from the Mental Health Commission of Canada that illustrates the indicators of burnout, from healthy, to reacting, to injured, to ill. “If, all of a sudden, you are not sleeping well, for example, it may be part of that continuum. Make sure you understand what the warnings signs are.”


Most people can identify burnout, but the solutions are not always as readily known or available and can be as complex as the factors that contribute to it, says McGregor. “There’s no quick solution or a simple linear path.”

The Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health has developed a burnout recovery guide that outlines three stages of recovery.

  1. Reorganize your goal hierarchy. “When you are emotionally exhausted the brain tends to reinforce negative thinking,” explains McGregor. “Remind yourself why you chose to do that work and realign your values around it.”
  2. Reframe your mindset to fight the cynicism. “Take a step back and recognize what factors are contributing to that mindset,” says McGregor. “Look for the positive experiences amidst everything that is going on and spend your mental energy focusing on them.”
  3. Rebalance. “Leaders’ days are filled with things they like to do, as well as things they don’t like but have to do,” explains McGregor. “Spending a full day on have-to-dos is extremely draining. Perhaps take those on in the morning when you are at your peak and switch to the want-to-dos in the afternoon.”


Both Trottier and McGregor speak to the importance of mindfulness.

“Sometimes leaders who have been there for their teams, their work and their families, forget about themselves,” says Trottier. “The best analogy that is often used is putting your own oxygen mask on first on a plane.”

“It can be something as simple as deep breathing, going for a walk or turning off your phone during lunch,” says McGregor. “The main thing to remember is that, if you are unable to take care of yourself, you will struggle to take care of others in your workplace.”

Trottier says to remember that there are many resources available in the form of guides, seminars, and support services, such as BounceBack, a skill-building resource, and MindBeacon, a virtual therapy tool.

“Mental health training seminars for leaders are something that I encourage,” he says. “Every single CPA in Canada has a CMHA office within a stone’s throw that offer seminars. I encourage every leader to embed mental health knowledge throughout the year and make it a part of the company’s DNA. Leaders need to put mental health on the agenda and walk the talk in this space.”


Read about Dennis Trottier’s journey with depression, check out these approaches to avoid employee burnout and see why developing a meaningful mental health culture is important.