Sunny the Canary

Tanya Lehmann
July 21, 2021

This is a guest post by Tanya Lehmann, a Change and Leadership Expert with over two decades of experience in Health. She recently presented at the Teamgage hosted event "Gaining visibility and control of workplace wellbeing within Health", and discussed ways of surfacing and addressing wellbeing challenges at strategic and operational levels.

Her experience in health spans over 23 years, from clinical change leader, to executive and board director roles. Core to Tanya’s beliefs is that the wellbeing of employees relates directly to the quality and outcome of their work.

In healthcare, the stakes are high

The quality of employees’ work can literally make a life-or-death difference. With COVID placing extra strain on the health system, its leaders and frontline workers, now more than ever it is vital for health organisations to focus on employee wellbeing.

Let's explore the ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphor and how it relates to the wellbeing of healthcare employees in the COVID work environment.

Meet Sunny the canary

He is bright, chirpy, loves to sing and has a really important job. His job is to keep the miners safe.

Canaries were first utilised in coal mines in 1911, and the practice was commonplace through to 1986. Canaries were chosen specifically for their high metabolic rate, their cheery disposition, and their sensitivity to carbon monoxide. Effectively they were a pre-technology early warning system to keep miners alive.

So, what can a Canary teach us about wellbeing in the workplace?

When a canary is healthy, they are really well connected to their community. They feel like they belong. They also have a strong sense of competence and know what their job is. They have autonomy and control over their lives. They have behavioural freedom to make choices, even when they are under pressure.

This is what a thriving canary looks like, and by extension, what a thriving human looks like in any work environment.

When environmental conditions shift, the canary reacts.  He starts to struggle to take in enough oxygen to sustain himself. His breathing becomes laboured. His head drops down as he works harder and longer to get the job done. He withdraws socially, stops singing and interacting playfully with the miners.

Just like Sunny, during the striving phase we become more reactive. We feel less secure in our relationships, feel unappreciated and strive to work harder to win others’ approval. We may avoid conflict, go along to get along, become overly focussed on complying with the rules.

We may also feel less secure in our own competence, become hyper critical and judgemental of ourselves and others, look for someone to blame, withdraw emotionally, obsess over details, insist we are right, disregard others’ perspectives and appear arrogant.

We may feel like we are losing control, and become hyper-focused on controlling tasks, people or the quality of work. Wearing busy as a badge of honour, we can become overly directive, competitive or perfectionistic and ultimately damage relationships.

If the striving state is not identified and responded to quickly, the canary’s wellbeing rapidly declines. At this stage they are critical, barely surviving.

From a human perspective, this looks like burnout. Emotional exhaustion, de-personalisation and reduced professional efficacy.

We become emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed because we have cared too much for too long. As a survival mechanism, we depersonalise our work, our care factor declines, we struggle to empathise and respond compassionately to others. We go through the motions as work is diminished to a series of tasks. We feel like nothing we do matters anymore, nothing we do makes a difference.

Burnout manifests mentally and physically. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, suicidal ideation, suppressed immunity, increased inflammation and pain, elevated blood pressure, heart disease, stomach ulcers, irritable and inflamed bowel disorders…the list goes on.

If it remains unchecked, Sunny’s decline reaches the ultimate conclusion.

Unless he is removed from the unsafe mine and fresh air restored to his lungs, he won’t survive.

The impact of COVID  

Healthcare workers and other helping professions have always been vulnerable to burnout because our work is complex, technically challenging and emotionally draining. COVID has amplified this risk because it has rocked all three legs of the stool that are required to maintain our wellbeing. Strong social connections, feeling competent and having a sense of autonomy.

Social distancing, face masks, border closures, isolation from loved ones and disruption to our social activities have all impacted our social connectedness.

Our sense of competency and professional efficacy has been rocked by not knowing what to do, feeling stretched beyond capacity to maintain business as usual and respond to the new and changing demands of COVID.

The volatility of the situation, ever-changing requirements, disruption to work patterns, and imposed restrictions on our freedoms have all diminished our sense of autonomy, certainty and control.

So what can we do?

Pay attention
Early warning systems don’t work if we ignore them. We need to be paying attention to the wellbeing of our people. Check-in. Ask how they are coping. Take note of sick leave, absenteeism, presenteeism, increasing reactive behaviours, declining engagement in meetings, reducing help-seeking or help-giving behaviours, escalating conflict in teams, increasing errors, a spike in overtime or deadlines not being met. Look for patterns. Ask deeper questions about what is going on.

Stop defining the problem as just individual
If the canary returned from the coal mine covered in soot and no longer singing, or worse, we would not blame the canary. We would not conclude that the canary was weak, not looking after themselves or needing to learn skills in delegating or stress management. We would address the environmental causes, the weak structures and toxic air.

Identify and treat the underlying causes
Stop sending fresh canaries into the same working conditions and expecting a different result. We need a more nuanced approach, one that seeks to understand what is really going on at individual, team, system and culture levels, and responds accordingly.

Individuals need leaders and peers who check in and offer support, access to EAP counselling, coaching, training, tools, and a workplace environment that offers connection, permission to fail, support to learn, opportunities to develop and exercise some autonomy.

Teams need to be having frequent conversations about how they are coping, to explore how they can support each other to manage workloads and maintain wellbeing and quality work.

Systems need to be in place to measure and respond to wellbeing trends, to manage workloads, to ensure access to the necessary tools and equipment, to provide robust support when needed.

And culturally, we need to examine the stories that are being told about what is expected. Is it safe to make mistakes, to ask for help, to take a break, to uphold healthy work-life boundaries? Are our leaders role-modelling sustainable levels of striving?


We must put the tools in the hands of the people, as close to the coalface as possible, to ensure that we can design bottom-up ways of improving the environments that are enabling our canaries to thrive.

If you enjoyed this, stay tuned to our series of posts about the takeaways from this and future events.

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