Features | From Pivot Magazine

The corporate world is waking up to employee burnout. It’s about time 

The days are long, the work is hard and the phones are never off. Burnout is real—and companies are finally taking it seriously

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Young lady working late at computer within her office cubicle In May, the World Health Organization designated burnout an “occupational phenomenon,” characterized by feelings of stress, fatigue and cynicism. (Getty)

Selina Gray was used to working hard. Growing up in Saskatchewan, she helped her father with the bookkeeping for his small construction business. She worked as a server while she completed her bachelor’s in business at the University of Saskatchewan, and began articling at MNP before pursuing her accounting designation. In 2008, she was hired as the financial controller for a global oil and gas firm. She was 24 years old.

Suddenly, Gray, a CPA, was putting in 120-hour weeks, flying from her home base in Calgary to Ethiopia and Kenya. Her accounting team was lean, so the brunt of the consolidation work and the reporting requirements for the publicly traded company fell on her shoulders. When her firm acquired another company, she flew to Addis Ababa to find a whole new team—whose first language was Arabic—ready to report to her. It was intense, but she loved the work. She was flying first class, presenting budgets to government officials and constantly looking for ways to strengthen internal controls.

Then, suddenly, she contracted mono and couldn’t get out of bed for a week. When she developed an inflammation in her eyes, her co-workers teased her for wearing sunglasses in the office. Her ankle started to swell, so she switched from heels to flip-flops. She started getting rashes all over her body and experienced heart palpitations. Her stomach was bothering her, too, but she figured it was just the food she was eating in all those different countries and the constant time-zone changes. She was soon hired away by another international oil and gas company and started travelling between the U.A.E., Tunisia and European countries such as the U.K. Her symptoms got worse. Some days, her joints hurt so much it took 20 minutes to get out of bed.

Gray was in Tunisia when her colleagues told her she did not look well. She flew back to Calgary and within days landed in the ER, where she passed out. She remained in hospital for nearly two weeks as doctors gave her blood transfusions and put her on IV steroids. “It was the ultimate burnout,” says Gray, who now runs her own financial coaching business in Edmonton. “I identified as a workhorse. I really wanted to continue to move up in my career, so I just did whatever it took. And my body essentially gave out on me.”

It’s no secret that the accounting profession can be particularly demanding. According to a study this year by the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association—a U.K. charity devoted to improving accountants’ lives—one in three accountants feels stressed on a daily basis. Overwork is cited as the dominant reason for workplace frustration, and 37 per cent of respondents say their job is the chief cause of their stress. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), in any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to mental health issues.

Today, those issues are often called burnout, which Toronto physician Mel Borins describes as “physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.” The term was popularized by a German-American psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger. In a 1974 paper, he described patients—typically “the dedicated and the committed”—who experienced headaches, sleeplessness, exhaustion, gastrointestinal issues and shortness of breath due to “excessive demands on energy, strength or resources” in the workplace.

In May, the World Health Organization designated burnout an “occupational phenomenon,” characterized by feelings of stress, fatigue and cynicism. Torsten Voigt, a sociologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany who studies burnout, attributes its rise over the past decade to a shift in the way we work. This is particularly true, he says, in fields that require higher qualifications, like accounting and law. “It is expected that you are basically on call all the time—that you will respond to emails around the clock,” Voigt says. “Suddenly you have these stressors that are related to your workplace in the moments when you are supposed to recover, and that’s a real change.”

portrait of Selina GraySelina Gray (Kelsey Nielson)

Fortunately, the rise in reported levels of stress in the workplace has dovetailed with an increased corporate awareness of the importance of mental health. In 2013, with the help of a workforce advisory group that included CPAs, MHCC launched the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace—a set of guidelines, tools and resources intended to help businesses promote mental wellness among their employees. Bell had launched its Let’s Talk campaign three years earlier, urging Canadians to speak openly about mental health. Companies large and small began waking up to the reality that many of their workers were silently suffering—and that the stigma surrounding mental illness was hurting both businesses and the people who work for them.

In June 2019*, as part of The Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S) and in partnership with CPA Canada, The Co-operators Group published a study on its approach to mental wellness at work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report found that an employee suffering from a mental illness is about half as productive as a healthy one. The study came after the Co-operators implemented its own mental health initiative in 2016, training every leader in the organization to recognize when a worker might be unwell and to handle the situation effectively and sensitively.

In recent years, the Big Four have put similar programs in place. Deloitte’s new office towers in Toronto and Montreal include wellness centres, which offer fitness classes, massage therapists and private reflection rooms available for meditation or prayer. The firm is also enhancing its benefits and wellness programs this fall, joining PwC, which has set aside a dedicated mental health benefit of $2,500 per family member, and EY, which in December announced a similar benefit worth $5,000. In October 2017, KPMG Canada became the first company in Canada to install a chief mental health officer: longtime enterprise partner Denis Trottier, FCPA. He speaks publicly about his past struggle with clinical depression, and now oversees manager training, benefits reviews and employee onboarding strictly through the lens of mental well-being. “If you create a culture where people are not afraid to talk about mental health,” he says, “they’re going to be comfortable asking for help.”

“You work for 16 hours. And even when you get home, you’re thinking about all the things you have to do.”

A decade ago, mental health was something you might talk about with your best friend, not your colleague and definitely not your boss. Now, CEOs are waking up to the fact that, if they want to lead a truly sustainable business, they have to create a culture where workers aren’t afraid to admit that they’re human.

For executives, that means leading by example. “The stigma and the fear is only done away with by open communication that is championed and reinforced from the top,” says Pamela Steer, the CFO of Payments Canada. In her previous position at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board—where she won the 2019 CFO of the Year award—she was a vocal advocate for the organization’s first mental health policy, which included mandated mental health training for leaders.

A couple of years ago, Penny Partridge, a CPA and PwC Canada’s chief people officer, took a seven-month mental health leave. Upon her return, she shared her story in a blog post on the company’s internal communications board. The response, she recalls, “was insane. It had 2,000 views within a few days.” She noticed that more and more junior staff were taking time off, and when the firm analyzed the data, “it all came down to anxiety and depression,” Partridge says. She started an employee resource group dedicated to mental wellness, which hosts panels, meditation sessions and lunch-and-learns. She says more and more partners have been willing to sit on those panels and share their stories like she did. “When you realize it’s not career-limiting,” she says, “that’s when you feel comfortable.”

Trottier thinks speaking openly about mental health will get easier as the workforce evolves. “The younger generations are agents of change when it comes to mental health, and thanks to them, talking about mental health will become easier with time,” he says. “Whenever I speak publicly, the 20- and 30-year-olds will come up to me after the session and high-five me. Versus the 30- and 40-ish, they come to see me in private. The 40-plus come to talk to me about a ‘friend.’ ” 

And yet for many young CPAs, it’s not easy to turn off the part of your brain that tells you to keep pushing. When Renée Dwyer, a 29-year-old Toronto-based associate at PwC, had a panic attack during her second busy season this past spring, she initially decided not to tell anyone at work. She was working from home the day it happened, so no one knew she had started shaking and crying so badly she had to stop. (She finished the job over the weekend, of course.)

“You leave home, it’s dark outside. You work for 10 or 16 hours depending on the client. You get home, it’s dark,” Dwyer explains. “You’re getting messages and emails constantly, so you’re not able to really unplug and step away from work. And even when you do get home, you’re still thinking about all the things you have to do.”

portrait of Renée DwyerRenée Dwyer (Photo courtesy of PwC Canada)

It wasn’t until PwC held its annual Mental Health Week in May that Dwyer finally spoke up, after she helped organize a panel event on mental wellness. When she told Partridge about her panic attack, Partridge informed her about all the resources available to her that she hadn’t even thought to ask about. She started using the firm’s mental health benefit to see a therapist, which gave her the confidence to tell her managers when she was feeling overwhelmed. “After the event, I had a colleague come up to me and say, ‘I kind of felt the same way,’ ” Dwyer says. “You feel almost embarrassed asking for help because you don’t want people to think that you can’t manage your job.”

Voigt’s research suggests a two-pronged approach to combat burnout. Initiatives that target workers at the individual level, like those that encouraged Dwyer to come forward, have gradually become de rigueur in corporate Canada. Longer-lasting effects, however, will require firms to identify, remove or at least minimize organizational stressors. A city councilman in New York, for example, recently proposed a “right to disconnect” bill, which would make it illegal for employers to require workers to check work-related messages after hours. Other firms have experimented with permanent four-day workweeks; a New Zealand company that manages trusts tried it for six weeks and found that the number of workers who reported they were able to effectively manage work and life commitments jumped by 24 percentage points.

Gray has figured out that harmony for herself. After her hospitalization, she left the oil and gas company and started her own business, which helps women entrepreneurs have healthy relationships with money. “I think lots of CPAs are like me in that we want to work hard and do an excellent job,” she says. “We’re super A-type personalities. That’s part of my personality and part of the profession, when I got into it—you do what it takes. You knew you had to give up weekends and evenings because that’s the life you chose. And now I’m grateful to hear that it’s different.”

(*This article has been updated to correct the month The Co-Operators Group published its study.)