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What’s Really Behind the Rise in Workplace Burn-Out, Bad Behavior and Mental Health Problems? (Part

…the one oh-so important component no one’s talking about…

(First published on Bell "Let's Talk" Day ... January 31st)

Just as we in Canada are revving up today for Bell Media’s (one of our telecom/media giants) Let’s Talk Day, which focuses on changing how we view mental health by blitzing social media messages all day and raising funds in an effort to end the stigma.

Indeed, on this day, as they have for many years now, the Employee Assistance Program organization that I work for, Morneau-Shepell, as a part-time contract Career Counselor -- also sent out this Media Release with the heading:

“One half of employees and managers are more stressed by work than personal factors; both types of stress are up three per cent from just two years ago with high performers at risk.”

While these are numbers no one wants to hear, for me, it’s been validation that I wasn’t imagining this pervasive and now, I fear, endemic problem that I first started tracking around 2010. It’s exciting to see some awareness finally creeping into the mainstream media because there’s been so little coverage of it until now. Early on in my research, I located statistics and studies that pinpointed this problem in Europe and the UK (author updated: 7/29/18 - Guardian article). But, to date, very little has been identified or shown up in think tank research or organizational development studies related to the conditions faced by the modern worker.

But it’s been inexorably ripping a tear through the fabric of our workforce, and impacting dedicated and hard-working longterm employees to the degree that far too many have come to believe it’s their fault that they couldn’t complete everything that was assigned to them. Even when it was obvious it was happening, as constant restructurings diminished employee numbers and fewer and fewer were left to do the work of many more.

Often, too, because it happened so slowly, and they were on many levels relieved to still have their jobs, many didn’t question or even speak up when more and more tasks kept being heaped onto their “to do” piles.

Have you ever heard of the “Frog in Boiling Water” story?

The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water, which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the incremental increase in temperature and will slowly discover it has been cooked to death. By then it will be too late! The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arise gradually.

Well, it was a lot like that.

And then, as more time passed and these employees kept adjusting to the unreasonable demands of their supervisors, bosses and higher-ups (many of whom were getting the same downriver redistribution of tasks from their own bosses, so they were struggling under similar crushing workloads) over time, as things got more and more out of whack, they began to believe there was actually something wrong with them because they couldn’t do it all!

They found they were spending more and more time at work – either in the office or at home and on weekends. They found they had less and less energy to do the fun things they used to do in their free time (what was that?) and while they knew they needed to take a break, so often work followed them on vacation, in the form of emails and texts and urgent requests from the office, that many started to avoid taking those vacations because the thought of coming back to hundreds of emails and tons of work … well, it wore them out before they’d even stepped onto the plane! So, many just stopped going altogether!

And something happened to their spirit under all that increased workload. Many started to doubt themselves. And, over time, as they grew more and more exhausted, they suddenly found they were making errors. Errors that they’d never made before in their lives! And bosses started checking their work more and keeping an eye on things.

Now we all know how it feels when you’re under a microscope, right? Not great! And so they started second-guessing themselves. And slowly, just like that poor frog, not picking up on the fact the water was getting mighty toasty -- they started to think, quietly and uncertainly, “Is there something wrong with me?” Were they losing their grip? It had never happened before and they used to be able to do everything that was asked of them. So why couldn’t they do it now?

It’s had a soul-crushing effect on many people I work with. And it was so insidious, so stealthy and unexpected, that very few fully put two and two together and realized it wasn’t them that was at fault.

It was the system! And the system was getting pretty darn dysfunctional!

This is why, instead of standing up and rallying their colleagues around them, instead of speaking up with a loud resounding “no” when things went from the ridiculous to the sublime, these hard-working, loyal employees -- too shell-shocked from seeing all their colleagues and work friends lose their jobs over the years, and worrying they might be next – succumbed to the all-pervasive fear factor and kept mum.

Here are a few of those articles and studies which have shed a light – albeit limitedly – on this significant workplace trend, and which I believe may need to be approached differently than the current disability management and mental health claim stats might indicate:

Mental health problems and illnesses are rated one of the top three drivers of both short- and long-term disability claims by more than 80 per cent of Canadian employers.”


“In 2010, mental health conditions were responsible for 47 per cent of all approved disability claims in the federal civil service, almost double the percentage of twenty years earlier.”

“One consequence of both workplace and home stress is an increase in both serious short-term and long-term disability claims. Dr. Kevin Kelloway, Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health Psychology, says that almost all of the work insurance providers with whom he has dealt report that between 30 and 40 per cent of their claims are related to occupational stress via mental health or heart conditions.”

“Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians report feeling overworked,” Gallo reveals. “And out of those people, nearly one-third say their workload is their main cause of stress.”


“When you’re exposed to stress chronically and you come into work and you’re reminded of it every single day, your body never has a chance to restore itself from that physiologically and psychologically stressful environment,” Henick says. “So the result of chronic stress is that your body eventually become depleted. If you don’t take a break, your body will make you take a break.”

“In the survey of employees and employers across Canada, a significant number of people managers (40 per cent) and employees (34 per cent) reported suffering from extreme levels of stress over the last six months, with both groups ranking workplace stress higher than personal stress.”

So, how did this happen? What was the catalyst?

Well, the economic crash of 2008 was, in many organizations, the obvious precursor of the massively common workload overload problem, which I’ve come to call: The Lucy Effect and which I will explain and dissect more in Part 2 of what will be a series of articles deconstructing the various layers and levels of this phenomenon, and in which I’ll also explain how the puzzle pieces came together as I found my EAP clients stories becoming alarmingly similar over the years I’ve been working with them as a Career Counsellor and Resiliency Coach.

But before I leave you, if you’re at all curious or recognize some common symptoms in yourself in the article above, please take a couple of moments to answer these 3 questions:

1. Do you frequently think you’re working way too hard and are busy all the time but can’t figure out how to change it?

2. Do you notice more people (co-workers, friends, family) seem to be on a shorter fuse than before and that relatively small things -- that never would have bothered them a few years ago -- now set them off?

3. And do YOU, yourself, often feel more stressed, anxious and irritable than you used to but aren’t sure why it’s happening or, worse, how to make it better?

If you answered YES to any of those questions, well, don’t worry…

You’re sooooo not alone! And there is some assistance and partial, even full-fledged, fixes possible!


Go to Part 2: The Lucy Effect


Judy Marston is a Career Transition Coach in Victoria, BC Canada. She’s worked in HR, Recruiting and, as a Career Coach & Resume Writer for the Canadian military, helping veterans make a successful transition to civilian work and life.

Nowadays, in tandem with her private practice, she is an EAP Career Coach/Counsellor helping hundreds of Canadian employees annually to minimize the impacts of The Lucy Effect in their day to day lives and workplaces.

With over 20 years in the field, her strong researching skills and love of helping clients hone in on their passions so they can Put Them to Work, has enabled her to build a very happy clientele with which she works throughout Canada (online and by phone) as well as in person, for those on living on southern Vancouver Island.

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