“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.'”
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.
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“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.
“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.
A 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.
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.
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“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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.
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.
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.
“Emotional exhaustion leads to depersonalization, resulting in a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.”
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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.
“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.”
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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 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.”
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.
“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.
“Does this person have good habits? Are they eating well, sleeping well?” explained Baba. “You need both preventative and reactive measures.”
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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?”
— With files from Rebecca Joseph