‘It feels like failure’: Why Canadian workplaces should offer stress leave

WATCH: What is burnout? WHO recognizes it as an "occupational phenomenon"

Winnipeg resident Merissa King has generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and a few years ago, it became so severe she had to take a leave of absence from work.

At the time, she was working in marketing and communications for an insurance company in Toronto.

“I was struggling with a terrible cold for weeks that I couldn’t shake, [and] being sick meant I was less able to manage my anxiety, which led to not being able to manage my stress,” King told Global News.

“This all happened during a very stressful period at work, with a heavy workload and high pressure situations.

“One day at work, I just hit a wall. I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: WHO classifies burnout as ‘occupational phenomenon’ related solely to work

Her stress levels affected her productivity and the quality of her work, which led to more stress. It quickly became a vicious cycle she couldn’t control.

“I had taken a couple of sick days over the prior weeks, but that just led to putting in extra time to catch up on work,” she said.

“My stress levels were severe. I couldn’t focus or concentrate, and I was mentally and physically exhausted. I cried a lot.”

That day, King had a panic attack and immediately left work to see a doctor. During a consultation with the doctor, she made the decision to take a leave from work.

WATCH BELOW: Research: Natural disasters lead to PTSD in kids

Click to play video: 'Research: Natural disasters lead to PTSD in kids'
Research: Natural disasters lead to PTSD in kids

“I didn’t give my employer much choice. I had to make an immediate decision to take care of myself, so I provided my doctor’s note and indicated the period of time I would be away from work,” she said. “It was an incredibly difficult decision.

Story continues below advertisement

“Everyone on my team was under the same stressful conditions as me, so I felt extremely guilty and selfish for taking leave.”

Unfortunately, King’s experience is very common.

READ MORE: ‘Burnout’ is a thing, doctors say. Here are the symptoms

2018 Gallup poll found that nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling burned out at work either “very often” or “always.”

“Burned-out employees are 63 per cent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job,” the poll stated.

“Even scarier, burned-out employees are 23 per cent more likely to visit the emergency room.”

In fact, severe workplace stress has become so widespread that earlier this year, the WHO classified burnout as an official medical diagnosis.

Story continues below advertisement

The condition is defined as: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy.

Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the subject of workplace and mental health, hopes the classification will help destigmatize the condition.

WATCH BELOW: Becoming a dad can take a toll on men’s mental health

Click to play video: 'Becoming a dad can take a toll on men’s mental health'
Becoming a dad can take a toll on men’s mental health

“The more that we can live a human life… We actually see better bottom lines at the workplace,” she previously told Global News.

“We see better workplace culture, less absenteeism, less presenteeism. So I hope the workplace does take this seriously.”

Stress happens when there is an “imbalance between the demands placed on you and the resources that you have [to meet those demands],” said Vishwanath Baba.
Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Advocates call for national youth suicide strategy: ‘Our children will continue to die’

A professor of human resources and management at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., Baba said stress becomes even worse when the consequences for not meeting demand are serious.

“It has physical consequences, psychological consequences, behavioural consequences and so on,” Baba said.

“Unresolved stress eventually leads to [things like] burnout, depression” and, sometimes, more severe mental illness.

Does your employer offer stress leave?

Unfortunately, stress leave is not mandated by federal legislation in Canada. What employees are entitled to by way of leave will vary across workplaces.

“There’s two different ways to look at what kind of leave employers might provide, either contractually or voluntarily, to employees, and there is a great variety of different arrangements,” said Kevin Banks. He’s the director of the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace and an associate professor of law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Story continues below advertisement

As a minimum, federal legislation requires that workplaces offer leave for family-related issues or sickness, “and it’s under those terms that people will take leave in order to deal with stress,” Banks said.

READ MORE: ‘Depression meals’: How diets connect to mental health

“It’s usually not called ‘stress leave’… because it’s kind of [considered to be] a cause, and then if it manifests itself in sickness or if you need to take some time to deal with family issues, you can apply that as justification.”

However, Banks fears this language could prevent employees from disclosing their stress to employers until it’s already too severe.

“I think most of us probably try to tough it out when we’re feeling stressed,” he said.

“I think, intuitively, we don’t necessarily equate being stressed with being sick, and so maybe people wait until they feel like they’re really burning out before they feel entitled to ask for sick leave.”

WATCH BELOW: Techniques to deal with work stress, according to clinical psychologists

Click to play video: 'Techniques to deal with work stress, according to clinical psychologists'
Techniques to deal with work stress, according to clinical psychologists

This is furthered by the reality that most sick leaves require a doctor’s note, and most doctors won’t provide a note until stress is manifesting itself in physical symptoms.

Story continues below advertisement

If you need to talk to someone about high levels of stress and your options, ask your employer if they offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), said Banks.

READ MORE: Canada has a discrimination problem when it comes to hiring — here’s why

King’s employer offered her access to an EAP, and she found it extremely effective.

“I was able to, for free, talk to counsellors and get the support I needed,” she said.

“I even took part in an online group therapy session on excessive worrying and anxiety, which I found incredibly helpful. It made me understand that I wasn’t alone, and I took away very practical coping tools.”

It’s in an employer’s interest to combat employee stress

Stress may seem harmless at first, but left untreated, it can lead to worse performance and physical illness over time.

“First, you feel emotionally exhausted… in order to get back [to normal], you start putting a distance between you and the people you deal with [at work]… When you do this again and again, you start questioning your own capabilities.” said Baba.
Story continues below advertisement

“Emotional exhaustion leads to depersonalization, resulting in a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.”

WATCH BELOW: Prioritizing mental health as students head back to school

Click to play video: 'Prioritizing mental health as students head back to school'
Prioritizing mental health as students head back to school

In King’s experience, the nature of her stress made it extremely difficult to articulate what she was experiencing to her employer.

“Looking back, I wish I’d done things differently,” she said. “It’s tremendously difficult to admit that you’re stressed.

“It feels like failure. My inner critic kept telling me to push myself to the limits.”

Now, King is at a new company and she feels more confident in her ability to recognize when she needs help. However, she believes more can be done to support employees.

Story continues below advertisement

“We lack the tools for people who aren’t experiencing it to support others in the workplace,” she said.

“Generally speaking, it’s awkward, uncomfortable and frustrating for everyone involved, so I think we have a ways to go before organizations know how to sufficiently cope with stress in the workplace.”

WATCH BELOW: Back to school: UBC president’s personal mental health struggle

Click to play video: 'Back to school: UBC president’s personal mental health struggle'
Back to school: UBC president’s personal mental health struggle

Stress could be considered a legitimate reason for needing a temporary withdrawal from work, but without the language to communicate that, employees can be left in a lurch.

“If it’s not to the point where you could get a medical note… and you’ve already used up the [days] that you might have been given to deal with family related or personal issues, there’s not a lot you can make the employer do unless there’s something in your contract that gives you the right to something like stress leave,” said Banks.
Story continues below advertisement

“If it’s a unionized workplace, you could ask your local representative to take the issue up with the employer… but 70 per cent of Canadian workers aren’t in unionized workplaces.”

READ MORE: ‘A plop is quite different than a tinkling’: Why are we afraid to poop at work?

Baba believes a good employer should understand the cost of stress and take several different measures to protect their employees against it — even if they don’t openly discuss their stress in the workplace.

“Ask yourself the question: why are some people experiencing this stress? Why are people experiencing an imbalance? How am I the cause of this imbalance?” he said.

Employers need to study the expectations they set for their employees, and then analyze the resources they provide to them to meet those expectations. The hope is to stop the stress before it affects people’s physical health, as it did with King.

READ MORE: 28 per cent of men believe they could lose their job if they discuss mental health at work: study

“You can prevent stress by looking at the job itself,” said Baba. “I often tell people to redesign the work and the job in a stress-sensitive fashion.”

Another way to deal with workplace stress is to give your employees the opportunity to build resiliency.

Story continues below advertisement

“Does this person have good habits? Are they eating well, sleeping well?” explained Baba. “You need both preventative and reactive measures.”

WATCH BELOW: The pros and cons of standing desks in the workplace

Click to play video: 'The pros and cons of standing desks in the workplace'
The pros and cons of standing desks in the workplace

Finally, Baba believes a “good” employer will allow employees to take “temporary withdrawals” from work.

This can mean anything from a single sick day to a mental health day or a long-term absence due to stress.

“At the end of the day, it’s in the interests of the employer to create an employment climate that is sensitive to the stress that one experiences at work,” he said.

“Stress is here to stay… The question is: how will the organization deal with it?”

Story continues below advertisement

— With files from Rebecca Joseph

Sponsored content