Omicron and Employee Burnout

Written on behalf of Peter McSherry
Frustrated office worker
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Over the past several weeks, there has been a Canada-wide increase in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant of the pandemic. Many schools moved back to remote learning, and some employers have had to suspend or terminate unvaccinated employees. The ever-changing face of the pandemic has forced many employees to take on additional duties at home and at work, often on short notice, leading to feelings of overwork and burnout.

Rise of Omicron-Related Complications Overloading Employees’ Daily Lives

The issue of employee overwork has become increasingly common in Canada. Many employers in Ontario have now instituted mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies that have or are shortly coming into effect.

According to recent reports, the City of Toronto recently terminated the employment of 461 employees who failed to get vaccinated or report their vaccination status. Additional employees were placed on a leave of absence due to accommodation requests or partial vaccination status.

For many smaller employers, having a few employees refuse to get vaccinated can mean having a larger proportion of the workforce on a leave of absence, partial duties, or terminated.

Additionally, at the start of 2022, many Ontario schools moved back to remote learning. Many working parents have been required to take leaves of absence or incorporate their children’s schooling into their daily routines.

The omicron variant of COVID-19 has proven to be very contagious. Many employees have been required to isolate themselves at home and miss work as they have tested positive for COVID-19, have possible symptoms, are caring for a sick loved one, or have been in close contact with an infected individual.

Employees Carrying the Burden of Business Shutdowns and Workforce Reductions

This increase in sick days, competing family responsibilities, and implementation of vaccine mandates have left many businesses understaffed. Companies often limit the number of staff to ensure efficiency, save costs, and maximize profits. At the best of times, this can lead to some employees being overworked.

During this pandemic with high rates of absenteeism and recent terminations, there can be an enormous burden on those left behind who are sometimes performing the duties of other employees in addition to their own.

This overwork can lead to burnout, stress, health problems and more. A recent Community Well-Being Report authored by the YMCA of The Three Rivers (Waterloo Region, Guelph and Stratford) determined that almost 75% of working adults in our region are experiencing work burnout.

How Employees Can Address Overwork

For employees suffering from overwork, one of the first steps might be speaking with your manager or human resources department about your concerns. Employers may be understanding of these unprecedented circumstances and should try to accommodate employees’ needs and concerns.

However, employees can find themselves in a work environment where speaking up does not create change or even results in reprisal by the employer. Employees in such circumstances will understandably have questions regarding available legal remedies to address overwork and burnout.

What Recourse is Available for Employees Suffering from Overwork?

If the overwork leads to additional work hours that are unpaid, you may be entitled to overtime compensation for the hours worked above and beyond your regular workweek. As we have previously covered here, many employees are entitled to overtime compensation under the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

If the overwork or burnout leads to a disability, you may require a medical leave of absence or medical accommodation from your employer. As noted above, the recent study of the Guelph, Waterloo and Stratford region indicated that a majority of workers in our area are experiencing burnout. This means there are likely many employees whose burnout has risen to the level that they need to seek medical treatment for the mental health impact.

If you are being targeted by your manager or employer for more duties or more difficult assignments while other colleagues are being provided with lighter or easier assignments, the overwork you are experiencing may be workplace harassment. All employees have the right to a safe workplace, and harassment can be a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Occupational Health and Safety Act or even your company’s own policies.

When Overwork Becomes a Constructive Dismissal

In some cases, overwork can become so severe that you are essentially being pushed out of the workplace or constructively dismissed. Some changes to workload and duties may be expected in the ordinary course of an employment relationship. However, in some circumstances, it may rise to the level of constructive dismissal.

Ultimately, the employment relationship is a contractual relationship. Your employer is offering you pay in exchange for your performance of specific duties and tasks. When the employer fundamentally changes the contract by making a significant change to your duties or compensation, the court may consider this to be a constructive dismissal and award wrongful dismissal damages.

Overwork can be a fundamental change to the employment contract if it significantly changes your:

  • Hours of work;
  • Day to day duties; or
  • Work culture (for example, if it forms part of a larger toxic work environment).

A qualified employment lawyer can review the facts of your particular case and advise whether you have a potential claim for constructive dismissal or any other legal remedy.

Contact Peter A. McSherry in Guelph for Advice on Employee Overwork and Dismissal

If you are an employee experiencing workplace burnout or being overworked, contact the offices of employment lawyer Peter A. McSherry. We advise employees on a range of legal matters, including constructive dismissal, overtime pay entitlement, workplace harassment, and employment-related human rights issues. Contact us online or by phone at 519-821-5465 to schedule a consultation.