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Opinion: If companies want to stop quiet quitting they need to take burnout seriously

Many Canadians are still feeling burned out at work. Companies can help by being more accommodating of their workers' needs and addressing some of the root causes of burnout.
Unless businesses deal with the root causes of employee burnout, they will struggle to retain their workforce.

In 2023, between a quarter and a third of Canadians are feeling burned out. Burnout has not declined compared to last year. A full 36 per cent of employees are more burned out now than last year.

If you aren’t burned out, it may well be because you did some quiet quitting to keep work at bay. Most workplaces haven’t changed their workload or how work is done, although there are a growing number of exceptions.

My research focuses on organizational governance. I study organizations and employees’ experiences of their workplaces. Last summer, I wrote about how employee burnout remained high in Canada and discussed how it could be addressed. I cautioned that often, workplaces hold employees responsible for managing burnout.

However, addressing the root causes of burnout requires workplaces to examine the workload and expectations they place on employees. How can workplaces change their approach to burnout? Are they now more concerned with handling the root causes of burnout?

Burnout and quiet quitting

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, burnout includes a variety of symptoms from being emotionally depleted to detachment and cynicism to a sense of low personal accomplishment and depersonalization — the feeling that work does not belong to oneself.

The fact that burnout hasn’t decreased suggests that organizations have not addressed its root causes. Instead, employees have taken matters into their own hands and done some quiet quitting.

Quiet quitting refers to doing what our job requires and nothing more. Gone are the days of overwork and constant availability. According to a 2023 Gallup report, most employees around the world are quiet quitting. Because employees who quiet quit may set better boundaries around their work, quiet quitting enables them to prevent burnout.

The fact that many employees have resorted to quiet quitting suggests workplaces are not addressing or taking burnout seriously enough.

As a result, work remains the primary source of stress for Canadians. We have too much work, work in organizational cultures that are too toxic and don’t feel supported enough.

Not surprisingly then, a recent survey found one third of Canadians have left a job due to burnout. One in four businesses in Canada have had challenges with employee retention.

How workplaces can address burnout

Employers need to revisit the workload they place on their employees. They should consider how realistic it is for employees to complete their work within the required time frame.

They also need to address their culture and question how it can be toxic, notably concerning how work is done, and how toxicity can be addressed.

Finally, organizational leaders need to listen to their employees and set a tone that is supportive, shows empathy and is not merely rhetoric. Words have to be followed by actions to ensure the work environment fits the needs of employees.

Paying employees more isn’t sufficient. Having a good work-life balance is often more important than higher salaries.

There are signs that some workplaces are serious about addressing the root causes of burnout. They are concerned with reducing workload. For instance, they can offer prolonged, or even unlimited, paid leave. They can provide more days off to allow employees to recharge.

A growing number of businesses are also embracing four-day work weeks as a way of boosting employee morale. Other workplaces give their employees the flexibility to work onsite and remotely.

Flexibility is essential for employees who also shoulder care work. Care work in many households is still done by women more than men. Women with young children take time away from their paid work for family responsibilities and miss more than twice as many days at work than men, leaving many mothers drained.

More than one third of working mothers in Canada say it is difficult for them to arrange child care. Mothers are about 20 per cent more likely than fathers to consider leaving their job because they struggle to find child care.

Employees need accommodating and flexible workplaces that understand their needs. Workplaces need to be mindful of that flexibility and should not view employees who seek it as less reliable than those who can work in offices for longer hours.

Claudine Mangen receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.