What is burnout and what can we do to combat it at Unity Health Toronto?

March 9, 2021

By Selma Al-Samarrai

As the pandemic stretches on, many of us have felt the sensation of burnout. But what is burnout, exactly? And is there anything we can do about it?

We interviewed two people with different areas of knowledge on this topic: Dr. Thomas Ungar, Psychiatrist-In-Chief at St. Michael’s Hospital and Chantal Sinclair, a Wellness Coordinator with our Corporate Health team at Unity Health.

Thomas says burnout is a normal reaction to sustained stress, and if you don’t feel stressed at this time, then “there’s something wrong with you.” He wants to validate and normalize feelings of burnout and reaching out for help.

Chantal, who has worked over the last year to research and gather wellness resources for staff, physicians and learners, says due to lockdowns and other realities of the pandemic, people can consider many other creative solutions to prevent and address burnout.

What is burnout?

Dr. Thomas Ungar

Dr. Thomas Ungar

TU: Right now, the emotional distress we all feel because of COVID-19 is called normal human life experience. Burnout comes from the stress theory. Stress is normal, but when you’re dealing with stress hormones for a long time and the adrenaline and cortisol keeps churning, you start to feel burnout and then you get unwell. It’s a depletion state of your stress.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada has a Mental Health Continuum, which I like to refer people to. It outlines on a spectrum which behaviours and feelings are considered healthy, reacting, injured or ill. Feeling burnout falls somewhere between the Reacting and Injured categories.

CS: Like Dr. Ungar, I also like to share the Mental Health Continuum with staff. This is a great visual to reflect and increase awareness on where you are at in any given moment. This can either confirm that the strategies you are using are working well (ex. if you are finding yourself in the healthy range) or it can also help you realize that there may be some steps to take to return to the healthy range. It’s important for people to know that every day is different and it is normal to fluctuate. The most important thing is to find what works for you to pull yourself out of the continuous stressors causing burnout as best as you can. It is also important to remember to be gentle to yourself as we have never experienced a pandemic before.

Why is burnout a common issue in health care?

TU: Healthcare professionals tend to ignore their own needs because they want to help others, and they feel guilty allowing themselves to meet their own needs.

CS: If you’re always giving to others which people in health care constantly are, then the less you give yourself, the less happy you’ll be. It impacts your relationships, your mood and your ability to bounce back.

How do we address burnout?

Chantal Sinclair

Chantal Sinclair

CS: It’s so important to find what works for you to de-stress so you can focus your energy on self-care that works towards creating your resiliency and happiness, but sometimes we need a bit of help.

We’re living in times where the typical resources we’d use to lift ourselves up such as going to the gym or socializing are not within our reach, so we have to get creative. Sometimes people do not have the energy to look up what is out there or they sometimes get overwhelmed with how many options are there. I created the COVID Wellness page on our microsite to house a number of reputable resources and supports under categories such as Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Wellness to make finding help more accessible.

TU: Reaching out for help to address burnout is the equivalent of starting to exercise because you feel like you’re out of shape and getting tired quickly. Self-care is really important, and in this situation it’s about recognizing the feeling of burnout and doing something about it. Take care of yourself, drink some water, take some time and pleasure in something you enjoy, maybe then you’ll relax as opposed to ignoring the burnout, pushing yourself and potentially developing an illness.

Not all illness is caused by being overworked but it can contribute to or precipitate illnesses like clinical depression or anxiety. It’s a precursor.

If you’re getting emotional, physical and/or mental exhaustion – you have resources to turn to that your employer is offering, so take advantage!

Can you tell us a bit more about the wellness resources that Unity Health Toronto staff, physicians and learners have access to?

CS: The resources we have now were built through lots of research by myself and conversations with the COVID-19 People Support team, the Spiritual Care Team and mental health professionals across our three sites to ensure that what we have up there is good quality.

The reason we broke it into multiple categories is because we know everyone has a different pain point. Someone who lost access to their gym will look for physical resources, someone who lost access to their social network will need emotional resources, etc. With this, they’d know exactly where to go to find reputable resources.

What other advice do you have?

TU: Everyone should have their own health care provider outside of their work to reach out to privately on their own time. You might feel more comfortable reaching out for help in an organization that’s not your employer so that you can maintain that boundary.

With access to both your external health care provider and the internal resources, you’ll hopefully have an improved quality of life, you’ll feel better and it may prevent you from missing work and even might be a health prevention strategy.