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How to help ourselves and each other feel better now

Mental health · Jun 9, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic added fuel to a fire that had already been burning in many households and in workplaces across Canada: chronic stress.

While stress (the result of hormones surging through the body) is a normal response to circumstantial pressures or demands, chronic or prolonged stress is neither normal nor healthy1. It increases our risk of mental and physical health problems like anxiety and depression, substance use problems, sleep problems, pain, gastrointestinal problems, a weakened immune system, difficulty conceiving, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and stroke.2

A close cousin of prolonged stress is burnout — a state of being at the brink of mental exhaustion — which is defined by the World Health Organization as a syndrome resulting from chronic stress that has not been successfully managed.3

Unfortunately, burnout has become a normal state for many as a result of unrelenting stress triggered by the events of 2020 and 2021. According to a recent survey4 of 1,500 employees in 46 countries that analyzed the state of burnout and well-being during COVID-19:

  • 89% said their work life was deteriorating

  • 85% said their well-being had declined

  • 55% said they couldn’t balance their home and work life

  • 2% rated their wellbeing as excellent

It’s not difficult to understand why we’re feeling this way. But we can take steps to help ourselves and each other feel better now.

For one, it used to be much easier to separate our work and personal lives when we actually got on a bus or in a car and travelled to and from our workplaces. For many Canadians, the current state of working is now so technologically efficient, you can pick up your job from anywhere — at the end of your run while stretching on a park bench, while dropping off your kids to soccer practice, or at home while the rest of the family is watching a movie. This new level of connectedness has been super beneficial in allowing us to work remotely, but it has also been super threatening to our internal and external homeostasis.

When we are not acutely aware of this double-edged sword, many of us are taking the path towards burnout. And as we look to a post-pandemic future, individuals and employers need to understand that the effects of our chronic stress are likely to last longer than the pandemic itself.

Here are some strategies for families to consider implementing at home and employers to consider establishing at work to support Canadians during their stress recovery:

1) Practice empathy and compassion

Whether at home or at work, try to have compassion for yourself and others. This process is not always intuitive, nor is it easy. When you feel your heart rate rise, a grimace start to form on your face, or your jaw starting to clench, notice that it’s happening and be curious as to why your body has responded in this way. Extend the same compassion to your colleague, partner, child or neighbour when they react to a situation in a challenging way.

It can help to say to yourself: “_______is doing the best they can during this pandemic.” (That includes the person who just cut you off at the stop sign). Pausing to be mindful, in everyday occurrences, can help reduce the mental and physical stress often carried throughout the day.

2) Normalize talking about mental health at home and at work

People tend to learn best from mentors who practice what they preach. As an employer or manager, strive for work/life balance, practice mindfulness, compassion and empathy in your actions, and others will often model the same behaviours. If you see a colleague or a friend who may be struggling, sit down and see what’s going on in their world, and let them know that you are there for them. That, in itself, goes a long way. If you’re comfortable, you can also offer to help direct them to a trusted healthcare professional or virtual care provider for support.

3) Reduce the workload

I speak with many patients who are under extraordinary circumstances, and therefore extraordinary stress, professionally and personally. Of course, there are endless reasons for soldering on: if they just hold on a bit longer until so-and-so is hired, or until they seal this one last deal, or until their child finishes high school, or until they pay off the mortgage…

But as we wait for those things, life (and often opportunity) may be passing us by. Be open to doing less. Not just at work, but in your personal life as well. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional or a life or career coach to help get you back on track. Asking for help is often the first and most important step in any recovery.

4) Prioritize connection with friends and family

This can be a tough one, because it takes everyone in the family being on board in order to restore peace at home. But I encourage you to sit down as a family each week and prioritize what’s going to be on the agenda. Can any tasks be removed? Have you left white space in the calendar for having meaningful conversations with each other? Do you have time to do nothing?

It’s important to prioritize people outside of your home who mean a lot to you, too. Schedule time throughout your week to reach out to colleagues, neighbours or friends; consider delivering a homemade treat or meal, or putting a card in the mail. Acknowledging someone you care about can help improve their day/week/month/year, and it can also help to ease your stress by promoting feelings of gratitude. Try to remember to be generous with yourself and those around you who matter most.

Learn more about our mental health services.

[1]  CAMH. “Stress Overview.” Accessed April 2021.

[2]  CAMH. “Stress Overview.” Accessed April 2021.

[3]  World Health Organization. 2019. “Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases.”

[4] Moss, J. “2021. “Beyond Burnt Out.” Harvard Business Review.

Authored by:
Dr. Beth Donaldson
Family Physician and Medical Director

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