This young worker quit amid anxiety and exhaustion. Here’s how the pandemic pushed some people to rethink work

During her time at Western University, Tomachi Onyewuchi learned to juggle competing responsibilities: school, work and modelling gigs. 

But despite good time management and being “very Type A,” she wasn’t prepared for the mental toll that accompanied the nearly 60-hour weeks of her first job out of school.

After graduating in 2019, Onyewuchi, 25, got hired at an e-commerce company and was working long hours, hoping to prove her worth to a small team of bustling employees. 

She did digital marketing for the company and her employer was dealing with high turnover, she said. As more employees left, Onyewuchi’s hours kept creeping up. 

In January, she reached a breaking point. 

“I wasn’t sleeping well, I was getting a lot of anxiety,” she said. “I was having dreams about my teeth falling out.”

As her symptoms of burnout — including fatigue and physical pain — grew too much to ignore, Onyewuchi decided to quit. 

It’s a decision she knows many others can’t afford to make — even though her experience is one that has become more common, as the line between work and home evaporated during the pandemic. 

Burnout connected to the pandemic

Studies have shown Canadian workers have been experiencing higher levels of burnout and mental health issues over the past two years. 

A survey carried out this month by the Angus Reid Institute, in partnership with CBC, found that 29 per cent of the 2,550 respondents said their work-life balance is worse since March 2020. That’s in comparison with 23 per cent who found it was better. 

Employers who want to address burnout need to offer their employees more autonomy and flexibility in the workplace, says University of Toronto professor of management John Trougakos. (John Trougakos)

“The pandemic has increased burnout across every sector of the economy,” said John Trougakos, an associate professor of management at the University of Toronto. 

And while the phenomenon dubbed “the great resignation” hasn’t played out in Canada at the magnitude it has in the United States, a significant percentage of Canadian workers are thinking about quitting. According to a 2021 online survey conducted by the Canadian Center for the Purpose of the Corporation, 40 per cent of the 684 respondents were considering switching jobs or careers. 

A new perspective on work and well-being

Onyewuchi says her generation is taking a different perspective on work. 

“People are more willing to advocate for their mental health,” she said, and to push for corporate change.

That’s in contrast to her parents’ generation, which showed loyalty toward employers — even when their jobs made them miserable. 

Leaving a job that was becoming increasingly taxing on her well-being gave her the opportunity to reset, she said. Onyewuchi, who struggles with chronic pain, said she’s even noticed her physical health improving.

Onyewuchi is set to start a new job at the end of March.

Learning from her past experience, she made sure to ask prospective employers during interviews about their workplace culture.

“‘What was your company’s response to the pandemic? How important is work-life balance to you in the office? Do you feel like your director or manager is there for you?’ Those are questions that I always ask, because it is important to me,” she said. 

WATCH | The pandemic pushed people to reconsider the role of work in their lives: 

How the pandemic pushed people to rethink work

23 hours ago

Duration 1:06

The COVID-19 pandemic has led more people to question how hard they want to be working, says Boston College professor of psychology David Blustein. 1:06

Young workers, who grew up in an era with increased awareness placed on mental health, might find it easier to bring up health concerns in the workplace, Trougakos said.  

“It is more comfortable and natural, potentially, to express those concerns [and] to focus on well-being,” he said. 

Younger workers also show a greater propensity to switch jobs, he said, noting the decision to leave a job seems an easier one than for previous generations.

The pandemic ushered in some of the biggest changes seen in decades about how and where people work.

That’s pushed people to rethink the role work plays in their lives, says David Blustein, a professor of psychology at Boston College. 

“People are saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to work this hard,'” said Blustein, whose research focuses on the psychology of work. 

“This particular kind of overall global movement will help to empower workers more broadly and ideally create working conditions that people find more meaningful.”

Building healthy work environments

For employers interested in addressing burnout, reducing job demands and not overburdening employees would be an “obvious” place to start, said Trougakos. 

Beyond this, workplaces that offer more autonomy, flexibility and social connection are more likely to see lower rates of burnout, he said. 

And with workers holding more power than they have in the past, employers may be more receptive to employees’ concerns.  

“Because of the labour shortage and this rethinking of work that we’re experiencing during this pandemic, I think some employers are more open to receiving feedback,” Blustein said. 

And if speaking up doesn’t lead to changes in the workplace, in today’s job market workers have options. 

“There is demand for high-skilled workers, so they can go out and find jobs and working conditions that suit them,” Trougakos said.

Returning to the office?  Share your story with us here. We want to hear from employees and employers about your plans — and whether the return to in-person work is a dream, a nightmare or somewhere in between.

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