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Victoria Wells: Epic burnout might be the catalyst behind the quiet quitting trend


Quiet quitting is gaining traction in workplaces and stealing headlines, but there could be a very good reason why so many employees are disengaging from work: they’re just burnt out.

Almost 90 per cent of Canadian workers say they’ve experienced burnout over the past year, according to Ceridian HCM Inc.’s latest Pulse of Talent survey. The toll is just as bad in the higher ranks, with 89 per cent of middle managers and 92 per cent of senior leaders saying they’re tapped out. Adding to the negativity, 87 per cent of workers say they’ve felt stuck in their jobs at some point during the year, and one in three say they “often or always” feel that way.

Need more evidence? Anxiety, feelings of isolation and dampened productivity — a recipe for burnout — have been mired at their lowest levels for five straight months in the most recent mental health index by LifeWorks, a Telus Inc. subsidiary.

Put it all together, and you have a large swath of unhappy, tired employees, all seemingly putting in the bare minimum until they have the strength to find something better. Indeed, 70 per cent of Canadian workers are either considering or actively looking for a new job. “What’s clear from our research is that employees have commitment issues with their employers,” Susan Toyhama, chief human resources officer at Ceridian, said in a news release.

The resulting malaise is taking a toll on people’s efforts at work. Productivity in the United States plunged to a record low in the first part of 2022 just as talk of quiet quitting was gaining momentum. But though low productivity costs companies billions, burnout is a problem that’s historically been seen as something individuals must fix on their own. Many exhausted workers try to solve their fatigue by taking a week’s vacation, or a mental health day, only to be confronted when they come back with the same issues that fuelled their burnout in the first place.

 It’s up to organizations to fix burnout, experts say.
It’s up to organizations to fix burnout, experts say.

Psychologist and burnout researcher Christina Maslach, who co-wrote the book The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Job with psychologist Michael Leiter, says burnout happens when exhaustion meets disengagement. “You lose the sense of passion and meaning about what you were doing and why,” she says in an article published by the University of California, Berkeley. “You’re saying, ‘What do I have to do to get out of here and still get a paycheque.'” But the authors’ research suggests employers can play a bigger role in combatting the problem. “Burnout is a management issue,” Leiter recently told Bloomberg.

Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Pandemic, agrees. She says a heavy workload is just one contributor to feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Other “triggers” include not feeling in control of your work, a lack of recognition, the perception of being treated unfairly, having unhealthy relationships with colleagues and even discrimination. Those issues are the fault of organizations, she says, and that means companies should be on the hook to solve them. But the fix isn’t free lunches or an office pool table. “Real solutions offer agency and flexibility and choice to manage your workload however you see fit.”

Flexibility is what many workers say they want most. Of employed people aged 18 to 24, 44 per cent say flexibility is the most valuable aspect of a job, according to the Ceridian report. What’s more, flexibility, combined with work-life balance, is gaining importance among all age groups, overtaking job security as the more coveted work perk. This isn’t news to most employers. Many have already responded by offering employees greater scheduling leeway, or hybrid and remote working options.

But flexibility isn’t limited to when and where people work. The sheer number of workers who say they feel trapped in their jobs gives rise to another potential strategy to mitigate burnout and disconnectedness: career path flexibility. That doesn’t mean employers should start handing out promotions for leadership positions. Almost half of Canadian employees say they want their workplaces to help them create a career development map so they can achieve their goals. Another 37 per cent are looking for mentorship opportunities. And, crucially, a third want to be able to switch roles within their organizations. It’s this kind of flexibility that will help determine who stays connected to their jobs, Ceridian says.

Companies need to make “their own commitment to employee work-life (balance), career flexibility and engagement,” Toyhama says. “This includes opening up opportunities for employees across an organization, while giving them greater control about where, when and how their jobs get done to truly meet the needs of a modern workforce.”

The epic burnout numbers suggest that if employers want people to perform, and lessen the impacts of disengagement, resignations and low productivity, then offering a new kind of flexibility might be the way forward. Otherwise, expect quiet quitting to become the default of workforces everywhere, for years to come.

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This column was first published in the FP Work newsletter, a curated look at the changing world of work. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.