Barriers to Wellness: Mental Fatigue

March 18, 2022

For business owners, plan administrators, and sponsors

Are you tired of waking up tired?

There are days we all wake up tired. But for some, it’s day after day after day. Mental fatigue–or even more simply put “brain drain,” impacts all of us.

If left unchecked, your productivity can plummet and you can start presenting with both physiological and psychological symptoms shares Lindsay Bell, Senior Health Management Consultant, Manulife.

Lindsay says the range of symptoms is a long list, some of the more common experiences include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • memory problems
  • difficultly making decisions
  • persistent feelings of exhaustion
  • increased irritability, especially with things that didn’t previously bother you
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • headaches

The longer it goes unchecked, it can manifest into anxiety, depression and true burnout.1

Mental fatigue is not a new phenomenon, Lindsay says, but Covid-19 is likely exacerbating it.

“Partly why people feel mental fatigue more acutely with Covid is because they have so many more decisions to make and are trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing circumstances of this pandemic,” she says.

“What are the latest restrictions? Do I get vaccinated? Who do I limit our social circle to? I got laid off, how will I pay my bills?? I’m not feeling well, should I get tested? Lindsay says. “Being inundated with decisions to make is exhausting.”

All that exhaustion could be taking a toll on us and the workplace. According to Manulife’s 2021 Wellness Report survey results, 63% of employees say they’re not adopting healthy choices due to mental fatigue.2

Nearly 40% say they’re not exercising enough, 69% are not eating well and 29% say they’re not getting enough sleep.2

And that has a big impact on the workplace. Businesses have lost 41 working days per employee due to health-related absences and presenteeism, according to the 2021 Wellness Report.2

Lindsay says there’s a variety of tools to help address mental fatigue and offers insights on how business leaders can help address fatigue in the workplace.

Set boundaries around work

“Manulife’s Wellness Report showed that 48% of respondents are experiencing at least one work related mental health factor, with balance being a top factor,” Lindsay says.1

“If we want to be our best selves at work and in our personal lives, we need to establish healthy boundaries. Boundaries that allow us to rest and recharge,” she says. “With more people working from home the temptation and ability to keep working is there. We have to change the narrative about what rest and recharge means and give ourselves permission to take care of our mental wellbeing.” 

Lindsay says flexibility with employee schedules and leading by example are key for leaders who want to combat fatigue in their workforce.

“As leaders that may mean not scheduling meetings over the lunch hour or at the end of the day when parents are corralling their kids. As employees that may mean blocking off your lunch break to make sure you’re stopping to eat, go for a walk to clear your head or journal to get stressful thoughts out” Lindsay says.

“We’ve recently seen our provincial government try helping Ontarians with work-life balance. Part of Ontario’s new Working for Workers Act places accountability on employers to institute a disconnect from work policy,” she says.3 “This will certainly look different for each organization and is really a conversation starter that has a long way to go, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. It would be great if more provinces follow suit with similar legislation.”

Build opportunities for connection

Lindsay says fatigue can fester especially for remote/isolated workers, and those in high stress and caregiving roles. Collaboration and connection may be part of the remedy your workplace needs.

The Wellness Report showed that more than half of employees (51%) have experienced feelings of loneliness.2 Lindsay says loneliness was an issue before the pandemic, but with social and workplace restrictions, COVID has presented new challenges.

"We’re hard wired to be social beings, people miss the ability to connect with their teammates on a personal level,” she says.

“So, we need to get creative to bring those touchpoints back both from one-to-one connections between coworkers and broader team building activities”, she says. “It’s not easy given many employers will have a hybrid of remote and onsite workers so the key is being intentional and having a genuine interest in wanting your employees to feel connected to their work and team.”

Not sure what that looks like? Ask them. You’d be surprised how simple those solutions can be if you seek employee input.

Simplify your decision making

Leaders can foster an environment that fights fatigue, which Lindsay says is a shared accountability. There is guidance leaders can share to help employees get started.

Lindsay suggests focusing on decisions within our control and to start small, take things day by day.

“The farther down the path we try to plan, the more decisions we have to make. Overplanning can actually make us feel more overwhelmed,” Lindsay says.

She says you can avoid this by keeping it simple.

“If you’re having sleep issues, make rules about what time you go to bed, what time you cut off TV and screen time, what time you have your last alcoholic or caffeinated beverage.”

Lindsay says setting personal ground rules like this helps automate some decisions, which reduces the accompanying stress.

“Considering setting some ground rules; rules you’re willing to stick to,” Lindsay says. "When your workday is done make it a habit to shut your computer off. Not hearing the pings and dings of email alerts removes the sense of urgency to respond.”

Promote existing resources

Remind yourself and your employees about resources already on hand.

“You’d be surprised how often employees are unaware what options exist. When you’re already struggling to make decisions, trying to navigate what help is available can be overwhelming. Take the time to inform your staff regularly what’s available and how to access it,” Lindsay says.

If your workplace has a wellness program, encourage employees’ participation in it. “As leaders our actions are noticed, don’t just promote it but participate too, walk the talk,” Lindsay says.

Provide mental health training for your managers. “Equip leaders with the tools and resources to recognize when employees are struggling,” Lindsay says. “Knowing how to performance manage during those times goes a long way in addressing concerns before they escalate. And it helps foster a psychologically safe work environment.”

Lindsay says many benefit plans include an Employee & Family Assistance Program (EFAP). These programs offer various forms of support for employees and their families at no cost.

She says many benefits plans also have coverage for counselling and mental health services. Make sure staff understand the scope of that coverage.

Some employers have employee resource groups which can help bridge shared interests and combat feelings of isolation, Lindsay says.

For more information on EFAP and other employee resources, please reach out to your Manulife representative.

Breaking down barriers to wellness

Mental fatigue is just one of the barriers to wellness we found in Manulife’s Wellness Report. Watch for more articles to help break down those barriers in your workplace.


1 Pandemic fatigue: One-in-three Canadians report struggles with mental health; 23% say they’re ‘depressed’

2 Manulife 2021 Wellness Report