Want to keep staff amid COVID-19? Target burnout, experts say

WATCH: The trending word that describes the dominant feeling of 2021

Michael Martyn was tired even before he managed to land his first job in months.

He lost all three of his previous gigs — as a musician, bartender and an administrator in performing arts — at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the combined stress of paying bills, taking care of his kids and looking for work piled on.

Now that Martyn has a steady job working remotely as an executive with a music festival in Parry Sound, Ont., he feels invigorated. But he’s wary about burning out again once the excitement of the new job wears off.

“It’s the indefiniteness of it, the vagueness of what to expect, the on-again-off-again approach to our lives,” said Martyn, saying the nature of the pandemic takes a toll on his working life.

“The toughest part is watching the effect on my kids.”

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Recruitment agencies and workers say remote-working norms in a pandemic age were created pretty much overnight, and employers need to ensure they stamp out any unhealthy work practices as the pandemic drags on. Experts say it’s especially critical for retention: promoting a healthy work environment means fewer workers leave for another company or change careers altogether.

A survey by Robert Half, another large recruitment agency in Canada, found that feelings of burnout were coupled with feelings of career stagnation, with 62 per cent of respondents saying the pandemic had made them feel stuck on career advancement and salary growth.

The same survey found that employers need to ensure they’re supporting their workers, or else they could face mass departures when pandemic uncertainty lifts and people become less risk-averse.

“Staff retention really needs to be a priority,” said Koula Vasilopoulos, a district president with Robert Half in Calgary.

“If employees are feeling like this, organizations really need to put together a plan … because key staff departures can really disrupt productivity, dampen morale and ultimately delay business growth.”

A poll by the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation found that 42 per cent of Canadian employees say they’re considering changing their job or entire career in the next year.

Brian Gallant, CEO of CCPC and former premier of New Brunswick, said it’s striking that only four per cent of those people said compensation was the reason they were considering a change of pace.

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The findings from the research reveal the pandemic has driven a shift in life priorities for Canadians,“ said Gallant, who said young people and women in particular care more about their mental health and personal lives.

“The Number One reason that some Canadians are considering a different job is the belief that their employer cares almost solely about revenue or profits and does not care enough about stakeholders like employees.”

Experts point out that one of the most consequential parts of working from home is the proximity that employees have to their work computers and phones at all times.

“Habits were just built: habits by employees of logging on early, and habits of employers of their staff being accessible at all times,” said Travis O’Rourke, president of the recruiting firm Hays Canada.

“With the environment that people found themselves in, they don’t know how to slow down … people now feel bad not replying at hours where they would normally never even have known the email came in.”

But O’Rourke and other experts say remote work offers a perfect opportunity to provide the flexibility and focus on their personal lives that statistics show Canadians desire.

Recruitment agencies and workplace learning organizations say employers need to ensure that workers experience the full benefits of working from home by providing flexible hours.

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Jeremy Shaki, CEO of Lighthouse Labs, an up-skilling learning group, said employers need to ensure that there is no shame or questioning related to employees taking personal days.

“The company needs to constantly reaffirm that people won’t be judged for taking a personal day,” said Shaki.

“At this point in time through COVID, it’s a very critical element that most employees are still fearful of it (looking like a sign of weakness).”

While employees need space to make time for themselves, Shaki also said that managers need to ensure they’re able to continually check in with their workers — something that isn’t as casual as it used to be when everyone was in the office together.

It’s one of the things that Martyn, the festival worker, is acutely aware of as both a new employee, and someone in a management position.

“There’s no such thing as management by walking around anymore, and you can’t just walk around the shop or wherever and see how people are doing,” said Martyn.

“That kind of a management approach isn’t there right now, and that for me is how I work — I go around and see how people are doing, check in with them and have that sort of personal interaction.”

On the other hand, Shaki said companies should acknowledge that sometimes, the issue isn’t actually related to work. With the stresses of the pandemic, there are enough issues around personal lives that people need to have the space to deal with those things.

“I think there’s a lot of Canadians right now who may think that growth and learning is what would help them, but I actually think they’re dealing with nervousness and stress around what their future holds, and grief over life having changed,” said Shaki.

“Sometimes I don’t think the best answer is making them think about learning and growing, as much as it’s giving them a little bit of space and time to settle.”

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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