Overcoming Causes of Work Place Burnout

A few years ago, a former colleague of mine told me he had quit his job. Naturally, I assumed he had secured another job and asked him about it. His answer blew my mind. He had no other job lined up but was quitting to save his life. Literally.

I paused.  Sensing my confusion, he explained that he needed time away from work to rest. He was exhausted because, over the past 2 years, he had worked extremely long hours, including at weekends.

During that time, he was married with children and was facing pressures at home. He was effectively an absentee father. He had held on for this long because he needed the job to provide for his family since his wife was a stay-at-home mom. Both his and his wife’s extended families were back home in India so there was no social network that he could depend on.

He had felt trapped and couldn’t even find the time to look for another job.

To make things worse, he had become seriously Vitamin-D deficient because he wasn’t getting enough sun. He usually arrived at the office before sun-up and left very late in the evening every day.

It sounded exaggerated to me and I hinted that he may be the problem. After all, his boss would have noticed the long hours and had a work-life balance chat with him.

He said his boss didn’t really care about his work-life balance and was actually the problem.

His boss was a bully who micromanaged his work, created a lot of churn and could not decide on the final version of any deliverable, undermined him, and was subtly bigoted.

He said he didn’t complain to HR because he did not trust them after observing how they stood by and allowed his boss to arbitrarily terminate his other colleague in the same department.

Luckily, he landed another, much better paying and less stressful job in a very short time frame.

My former colleague was suffering from burnout from working in a toxic environment.

This is an extremely unhealthy situation that negatively affects your health in every way including mentally, emotionally, psychologically and even manifests physically. This is made worse when management turns a blind eye to the negative actions of the people leaders creating the toxic environment or, worse, leads by bad example.

In the longer term, this may lead to serious stress-related illnesses like heart disease, insomnia, and diabetes.

While burnout affects pretty much anyone that encounters the necessary condition that triggers it, people of color, especially immigrants, are more likely to experience burnout more frequently due to the structural and institutional barriers that makes work life harder.

The contributory factors that make burnout more frequent and severe for people of color include tokenism, perception deficit, compensation disparity, employer biases, workplace discrimination and racism.

According to data from the 2016 General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada, “Black employees aged 15 or over, were more likely than their counterparts in the rest of the population to report having experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work in the 12 months prior to the survey.”

This means that for Black persons of color it is harder for their contributions to be recognized. I had earlier written about another former colleague who was asked if she first thought in ‘Indian” language before translating to English on reports she prepared. Promotions are harder for people of color and “tokenism” is an insidious device used to hold back people of color from advancing in their careers.

The negative economic impact of Covid-19 has made people of color even more vulnerable and increased the pressure to do ‘more” to hold on to their jobs that are already precarious in nature.

Corporations sometimes hire to fill a diversity quota and do not create the enabling environment where the contributions of the person of color is taken seriously. It soon becomes apparent to any discerning person of color that they are just there to make up the numbers thus invalidating their competence.

The perception deficit also makes people of color work harder and longer hours to demonstrate their value and are usually underpaid relative to their white counterparts.

Lack of representation of people of color at the leadership level is a problem that enables their continued marginalization that eventually leads to burnout.

Some large corporation made public commitments in favor of diversity and inclusion in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, however it remains to be seen if this translates to practical follow up actions.

More needs to be done in ensuring that the diverse talents and skills that people of color are harnessed which, ironically, would be in the best interest of these corporations.

Here are a few tools that people of color can deploy to change the narrative:

  • Endeavour to join or create employee resource groups for people of color in your workplace. They are support groups that can provide a safe environment where you can share experiences and receive guidance workplace related concerns.
  • Find out about organizations that push for equity and diversity and join or work with them to push for more inclusion of people of color through pressure groups, awareness campaigns and more engagement with government and corporations.
  • It would be helpful if people of color practicing in the employment law and human resource management sectors can create affordable options so that people of color can access counselling and guidance. That would ensure that the advice received is reflective of a shared reality and enable the employee fully understand their employment rights and have the tools to address the discriminatory employment practices that ultimately lead to burnout.
  • Sign petitions and share widely among your network to help push for legislation that protects and advances the employment rights and careers of people of color.

Right now, you have the opportunity to sign up for a petition that specifically targets discrimination against Black people of color. It opened for signatures on February 2, 2021 and will be closed for signature on April 3, 2021, at 11:48 a.m.

Click the following link to help get the petition to the Minister of Labor, The Honorable Filomena Tassi to consider the Black population as a separate designated group in the Employment Equity Act: https://petitions.ourcommons.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-3147

The Act was passed in 1986 to achieve equality in the workplace and to correct the conditions of disadvantage experienced by designated groups, identified as women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.

It is imperative that everyone does something to advance the cause of equal treatment of people of color in the corporate world.  Even if the changes do not happen right now, the next and future generations will benefit and look back with gratitude at our efforts.

We value your comments and feedback! Use the comment box to let us know your thoughts. Thanks.


Ernest Onuorah, MBA, is a financial services risk consultant, author, speaker, and career coach. He had worked at consulting and financial service firms including PWC, TD, RBC, BMO, and Home Trust Company, where he was AVP, Enterprise Risk Management. He holds the CRISC, FRM and CRM designations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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