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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 6: Is this the start of an employee rebellion?

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
February 8, 2021


The Scenario

I am a senior leader, working from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. and most weekends. It is not just me, it is my entire team. I tell them to take a vacation and how important it is that they look after themselves, but with little impact. One called me a hypocrite because I work around the clock, which is influencing her to do the same.

I know she is correct, but I see no option. With the pile of work and the number of emails I get, I just can’t keep up during normal business hours. Expectations for results, combined with a lack of resources in our company, are pushing employees over the top. With further restrictions because of the pandemic, I have noticed a decline in energy from not just my team but also from my peers and their teams. I have been thinking about leaving, as I can financially afford to. However, I believe that is not the case for most of the people I work with. They have young families and financial obligations or fear it would be difficult getting a new position.

With all the work challenges, there also now appears to be a shift in tone about how everyone is feeling towards the organization and leaders. There is increased frustration and anger and a lack of trust that is resulting in rudeness such as a dismissive tone by employees, to the point, one of my colleagues said he felt there was a quasi-underground employee rebellion happening.

No matter how many times our CEO tells the team she cares about employees and work-life balance, employees interpret it as lies, based on their experience. For example, the organization is not replacing people who have left, resulting in more work for those who remain.

Our employees also know that senior leaders still received their bonuses while most of them were given a token of $1-2k for their efforts. Work keeps coming, with no relief in sight, contributing to my belief that employees’ anger is bubbling up. I am witnessing a major shift in attitude as to how they respond to leadership. For example, during a change announcement in a recent meeting one team member rolled their eyes and said, “Whatever.” It looked like our CEO was taken aback by the comment. However, as I observed team members’ faces over a Zoom call, it seemed no one else was surprised by the disrespect. I think this situation is now a powder keg and if things do not improve quickly we will be facing some serious challenges such as more employees quitting, going on stress leave or — worse — going underground and not working.

Reactions from a Leadership Lens

The above scenario is one example of a change in workplace culture and the entrance into the mental health danger zone. For many, the two-week holiday break (if they had one) acted only as a momentary pause. The second employees opened their laptops on the morning of January 4, it was business as usual, and they were back working fast and furiously.

Many employees and leaders are experiencing a collective hangover due to being overworked and experiencing a large deficit in personal time with no clarity on when or how things will get better. Personal situations like homeschooling, fear of COVID, anxiety, burnout, stress, and fear of loss of work and lack of financial stability are also looming in the background. It has become difficult for employees and leaders to find a balance to reset and charge their batteries daily. Studies from Harvard and other sources are suggesting people in the workplace are becoming more at risk of burnout and compassion fatigue.

More anger is popping up towards fellow human beings and especially government, financial institutions, and the workplace in general. A recent quote suggested, “Modern-day slaves do not have chains, they have debt.” The United Nations recently warned that a global mental health crisis is looming.

In many organizations, employees’ mental health is becoming more at risk with every day of this pandemic. Leaders must act now to lower these risks. It starts with recognizing that if the current situation is not addressed, it will result in huge risk to employees’ health, performance, and engagement, and financial loss for the company. People can only take so much. The current pace and stress levels are not sustainable and there are clear signs things are breaking down. Imagine if your top three employees walked out tomorrow or broke down. What would be the cost to the organization?

Reactions from a Behavioural Science Lens

A recent global survey by Mercer found that most of the 270 insurance companies surveyed rate mental health as being as much of a risk as smoking. Before COVID, many senior leaders heard about mental health statistics, such as one in five employees comes to work each day with a mental health concern. In an organization with 1,000 people, that means 200 are struggling. With COVID, these numbers are up, based on our research. COVID is providing more context on employees with mental health strain, meaning more leaders are noticing and experiencing mental duress. Ignoring the signs and symptoms does not provide any relief; it only allows the problem to grow, like any chronic disease. Employers can impact employees’ mental health by accepting that they have a role, and that like physical health, mental health requires intention and good habits that support it.

The Takeaways:

  • Get personal — Leaders do not have to be psychologists to talk with their employees about their work and personal situation. Simple and frequent one-on-one conversations allow leaders the opportunity to learn how to best support individual employees and blend the demands of work and home in a way that reduces their stress load.
  • Measure employees’ mental health — Engage employees in workplace assessments designed to measure their experience as well as how effective the organization’s programs and policies are at supporting them. This can provide insight into what is working and what the employer can do to mitigate mental harm and support mental health.
  • Make breaks mandatory — Promote and enforce the importance of employees unplugging from work each day so they can reset. As well, ensure that they are using their leave time to get breaks from the demands of work.
  • Assess work demand — Analyze employee workload demands so you can better understand them to ensure expectations are realistic and sustainable. This can help drive out fear and allow employees to take better care of themselves so they can reset each day.


Want to join the conversation? Tell us your story about mental health in the workplace by emailing

Does your organization require training or tools to better support mental health in-house? Contact us to discuss your unique challenges and to arrange a free demo to learn how our integrated services can help.


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