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How empathy can fight burnout from work

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According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), over one-third of working Canadians experience burnout.

The MHCC quotes American psychologist, Herbert J. Freudenburger in defining burnout; in 1980, he called it, “someone in a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only highlighted the issues causing us to burn out. When we feel burnout, we lack motivation and energy. At work, it can feel like you’ve just run a marathon, except there’s no one cheering you on at the finish line. Your performance starts to slip because you’ve already given it all you have.

This year’s Mental Health Week theme by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is empathy.

Empathy is a skill — and it takes practice. To be empathetic is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes even if you’ve never experienced exactly what they’re going through. It is the ability to tap into a place of hurt within yourself and translate that to how someone else is feeling. Once we can do this, we tend to be more understanding of how others are feeling.

Even so, we need to recognize that not all our marathons were created equal. Some were built uphill, unpaved, and covered in rocks.

In a Manager’s Toolkit presented by MHCC, a way of addressing performance issues at work is for managers to practice empathy by recognizing that the pandemic impacts many parts of a worker’s life. Not only are workers facing the stress of a changing work environment, but they also face the uncertainty that comes along with a pandemic. These factors compound, and if you already suffer from a mental illness, it is only made worse.

Recognizing this fact is a good first step to help people suffering from these feelings feel acknowledged.

This recognition should be combined with another skill from the Manager’s Toolkit, which is documenting and celebrating progress. People need to feel like their work is being recognized, especially when they’re struggling. This celebration of progress must be sincere and not patronizing. In this way, the metaphor of the marathon changes. Instead of an empty road, there are now signs paving the way with how far you’ve come.

The thing about people is that we’re all different, but we’re expected to all work the same way. Those of us suffering from a mental illness or an acute mental health issue often require accommodations in our work life. The MHCC suggests managers work with employees to find these solutions.

With more Canadians working from home due to the pandemic, a reasonable solution could be an adjustment to their work hours. A simple change in work hours can afford someone the possibility to attend to their mental health.

Workers must have a safe place to talk about mental health struggles. The MHCC advises managers to make themselves available to employees. They also acknowledge that workers could be more comfortable with a third-party present. This is significant because people with mental illness have historically been vilified for sharing their feelings.

Nonetheless, the act of letting it be known that you are open to talking about mental illness is an act of empathy.

Most of the time, all we need to hear is that whomever we’re confiding in acknowledges what we’re going through and is there to help and listen. When this person is a boss or a colleague, the relief can be that much more. We rely on our jobs for so much, including our livelihood, our passion, and a sense of pride so it can feel devastating when we feel this is all at risk due to our mental health.

Just as many jobs have physical healthcare benefits, the MHCC notes that many workplaces have employee and family assistance programs. These services offer professional help for workers dealing with mental health struggles. Employees need to know that their mental health is supported as much as their physical health.

When something as pervasive as Covid-19 occurs, many aspects of our lives are magnified –including issues with mental health. Work is often one of the first places we start to feel the effects of burnout. Making changes to the workplace and encouraging empathetic decisions can help those in need — and sends a positive signal to co-workers as well.

Discover more: check out this article on things mindful people do differently.

Author: Kayley Addis is a Dalhousie graduate where she studied sociology. She is a soon-to-be journalism graduate from the University of King’s College.

 

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