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How some industry execs are managing burnout

Canadian Grocer asks what steps they're taking for themselves and their employees
Illustration of exhausted executives in an office setting
Shutterstock/Iconic Bestiary

After nearly two years of living and working during a pandemic, many Canadians have been enduring extraordinary circumstances leading to increased cases of exhaustion and burnout.

Canadian Grocer recently published an article focused this issue and decided to reach out to senior executives in the grocery industry to learn more about what steps they are taking, both personally and on behalf of their workforce, to avoid burnout. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Have you personally at any point during the pandemic felt burned out? Can you share one or two specific actions taken to ensure you’re staying mentally and emotionally well?

Simon Gagné, executive vice-president & chief human resources officer, Sobeys: When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s not always possible to take your own pulse. I think I’ve stayed mentally and emotionally well by focusing on the task ahead of me: keeping our teammates and customers safe, and keeping our shelves stocked. Food security is essential, so we’ve had a big job to do. For now, I’m energized to continue working hard to keep food on Canadians' plates. I would also say that I’m an active person, too—that helps me concentrate my mental efforts on solving the problems ahead of us as a company.

Dave Moncur, VP Human Resources, PepsiCo Canada: My favourite part of my job is being in our facilities and interacting with our employees, and working from home these past two years without this daily in-person interaction has been really challenging for me. Every day I go for a walk to get some fresh air, and I’ve been exercising daily to keep my mind and body in shape. I’ve found that these really improve my overall mood and well-being.

Nabeela Ixtabalan, EVP of people and corporate affairs, Walmart Canada: I’ve been very open about my own feelings of burnout and specifically “languishing” during the pandemic. We’re all under extraordinary pressures and experiencing life in a completely new way. The persistence of the pandemic and the toll it is taking on families—and mums in particular—is significant. The pandemic is defined in “waves,” but the impact of juggling work, family life and your own well-being can feel more like a tsunami.

During the pandemic, I’ve been focusing on what I call “radical self-care” and establishing a boundary around my own baseline activities that improve my well-being each week. As part of “radical self-care,” I unapologetically and audaciously prioritize my personal health and well-being and that of my family above everything else. This can mean taking a break when needed from work and online schooling or saying no to other commitments and activities. It means radically re-prioritizing, re-shuffling, and renegotiating to carve out, protect and preserve your own mental, physical, spiritual, emotional and social well-being.

Have you spoken directly to your staff about the increased possibility of feeling burned out or exhausted because of the extra pressures arising from the pandemic? What was the message to them? 

Gagné: I’ve been very impressed with my entire team throughout the pandemic. My team has risen to that challenge, and rallied around a common mission to keep everyone safe and maintain our culture. My team is passionate about what we do – we feel a sense of purpose to support our stores. It’s humbling to see their dedication to the mission ahead of them. I also do regularly check-ins with the team. And I’ve strived to lead by example—to be balanced, have greater empathy and in some ways take a softer touch to management.

Moncur: Over the past two years, we’ve checked in regularly with our employees at all levels of the organization—from salaried to frontline—to gauge how they’re feeling and what supports they need. We recognize that each employee is unique in their situation and we’ve reinforced that they need to take care of themselves, first and foremost, because if they don’t they won’t be able to care for their loved ones, let alone do their jobs.

Ixtabalan: Yes —it's a major priority. We have a culture of openness and transparency at Walmart Canada, and that extends to how we talk about our well-being. By sharing each other's stories, we will not only evolve the narrative and experience of workplace wellness but contribute to a societal movement that changes the expectations and norms for everyone.

We’re modeling this from the top down: our leaders are encouraged to talk about their own struggles and to be honest with their teams about how they’re coping. In turn, we’ve found everyone is more willing to open up about their challenges with well-being and motivation. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it does help everyone to feel less alone.

Our associates know it is okay not to be okay. It's okay to take care of themselves. It's okay to ask for help. We’ve also taken every opportunity to remind our associates of the many resources available to support their well-being here at Walmart. 

Have you introduced any formal programs or policies to help staff stay healthy both mentally and emotionally while still living under pandemic conditions? 

Gagné: Protecting and recognizing our teams has been our top priority since the beginning of the pandemic. Knowing that these have been tough times, we increased our benefits coverage for teammates to access mental health professionals, and shared frequent mental health resources such as live workshops and a dedicated website for our frontline teammates. Another way we recognized how our people have stepped up during COVID-19, is through a discount program that would help out with their own grocery bills. These are just a few examples.

Moncur: We’ve put a significant focus on mental health and wellness over the past two years. We’ve provided extensive wellness resources, including monthly learning sessions and tips, introduced a new wellness benefits credit, and we recently enhanced our mental health benefits coverage for our associates. In addition, we launched a new one-stop shop well-being portal for all our associates and introduced a new sabbatical leave to support employees’ work life integration during these challenging times.

Ixtabalan: [Walmart Canada believes] well-being is part of a company’s culture, not just a program, so we’ve embedded opportunities to have conversations and support well-being at all levels of our business. We actively encourage our teams to take their paid time off and to truly disconnect during that time, so they can return to work refreshed and reinvigorated.

  • Our Courageous Conversations series is an opportunity for our associates to share and discuss important societal issues on diversity, equity, inclusion and well-being. 
  • Our partnership with Thrive Global gives our associates and their families access to tools and resources to help them build sustainable habits to improve their mental and physical well-being.
  • We have certified over 650 Walmart Canada leaders in Mental Health First Aid training since November 2021.
  • Zoom-Free time zones blocked in calendar give our associates a much-needed break from video calls and are in place from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily and all afternoon on Wednesdays. We also introduced shortened hours on Fridays in the summer, providing the opportunity for our associates to start their weekend early.


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