November 28, 2004

Time to Call It a Day

Labour market changes during the 1990s have resulted in increased job insecurity and increased work demands - all of which are linked to increased stress

The phrase "lean and mean" entered the business management manuals sometime around the late 1970s, early '80s. It describes a business plan that does not replace employees who retire or quit, but shares out the work among those who remain. At the same time, technology has speeded up the nature of work. By 1998, one pulp and paper mill in Ontario, for example, had onethird the workers it had 10 years earlier, but it was producing double the amount of newsprint.

More work, less time to do it in, equals burnout for many people.

According to the Canadian Policy Research Networks, during the 1990s jobs became more stressful and less satisfying. As a result, employees are less committed to their employer and less satisfied with life in general as well as their work. At the same time, technology has blurred the line between work and family, with increasing numbers of employees extending their work day by taking work home.

A recent study undertaken for Health Canada also found that increased workloads and hours of work, are imposing a heavy load on the Canadian workforce.

The Conference Board of Canada reported in 1999 that twice as many Canadians experienced moderate to high levels of stress as a result of trying to balance their work and home lives; the jump was to 46.2% from 26.7% in 1989. Stress leads to serious mental health problems and even death.

In hospitals, stress means tired caregivers making mistakes, sometimes with fatal results. A recent study shows that a nurse at the end of a 12.5 hour shift is three times more likely to make a medical error than one at the end of an 8.5 hour shift. The error rate also goes up after a nurse puts in more than 40 hours a week, no matter how long the shifts are. Yet, overtime is a regular part of the nursing profession. According to a recent report in the journal Health Affairs, a shortage of nurses means that two in every five routinely work more than 12 hours per shift, and an astonishing one in seven regularly goes beyond 16 hours. In 2004, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions agreed that many places in Canada have mandatory overtime and mandatory on-call for nurses. A 2001 study by the Canadian Labour and Business Centre found that the overtime nurses worked was the equivalent of 7,000 full-time nursing jobs.

The most common sources of stress in the workplace are lack of time and excessive workload demands, as well as fear of accident or injury, poor interpersonal relationships with co-workers or supervisors, the threat of layoff or job loss, or having to learn computer skills. There's also evidence that shift work takes a physical and emotional toll on workers, largely because of lack of sleep. By 2001, more than two million Canadians - 14 percent of the workforce - worked 50plus hours a week, compared with 11 percent in 1976, Among those who work more than 50 hours a week, almost half take work home with them regularly and a third say job demands negatively affect their home lives. Being self-employed doesn't lighten the workload: one-third of people running their own businesses put in similar working hours, but they are less stressed because they generally have more control over their lives.

The errors that medical professionals make cost lives: one report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information estimates that medical errors kill up to 24,000 Canadians a year. Treating the victims of medical errors takes up more than a million hospital days and adds $750 million to the country's annual health-care costs.

According to Social Services Canada, plenty of data has been collected over the last decade supporting claims that employees who balance their work and personal lives have reduced absenteeism, and improved productivity. Not surprisingly, a healthy work environment also increases job satisfaction and lowers accident rates.

There are some encouraging rumblings in the corporate world indicating that employers are becoming more concerned about their employees.

Among the corporations taking a serious look at improving life at the office are those who formed the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. A group of Canada's senior executives, the Roundtable reported recently that in a 12- month period, as many as 25 percent of Canada's labour force experience a mental disorder that affects their work. However, fewer than 20 percent of those who need treatment get it. The group estimates that 35 million days of work are lost every year as a result of mental disorders, at an annual cost of more than $33 billion in lost productivity. Add to this the costs to companies for disability payments and staff replacement. One estimate suggests that recruiting a new staff member costs between two and four times the annual salary for the position. And, an estimated 400,000 Canadian workers who go on short- or long-term disability for mental health-related illnesses each year account for 35 percent of all insurance claims for disability.

The Roundtable includes executives from most of Canada's largest financial, manufacturing, and service companies, and health and legal professionals. The voluntary group believes that mental illness is the leading cause of employee disability. It says that it should be addressed at the corporate board level because over- demanding work schedules are a major contributing factor. But, the group found that managers often don't have the understanding or the resources needed to help employees after they have taken leaves for depression, addiction, or other mental-health issues. As a result, thousands of workers every year are unable to return to work and end up on permanent disability.

But, some companies have set up programs to help.

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, a member of the Roundtable, hired a doctor to work with supervisors and returning workers. The company allows employees to return on a part-time basis and gradually increase their responsibilities when they're ready to. After four years, the program cut 30 percent off the average length of psychological disability leaves, and saved the bank about $27 million in reduced disability payments and lower costs of hiring replacement staff. Dofasco Inc., long considered a model employer, set up return-to-work guidelines based on the Roundtable's advice. The company sees it as its job to get stressed out employees back to work. The Roundtable is hoping more companies will start doing the same. It plans to distribute its report, which includes mental health guidelines, to the boards of all publicly traded companies in Canada.


1. Find out who the top employers are in your community and research whether or not they have a program for helping employees who are suffering from burnout, and I or one to help prevent it in the first place.

2. According to the 2000-01 Canadian Community Health Survey, 30 percent of men and 26 percent of women aged 18 to 54 who were employed throughout the year (nearly three million people) had non- standard schedules. Examine the pros and cons of shift work and do a report on how it affects employees.

3. In the PriceWaterhouseCoopers 1999 International Student Survey, 57 percent of students stated that work-life balance is their primary goal, and don't believe this competes with long-term career development and personal growth goals. Have a class discussion on this view. Contrast this approach with that of workaholics who do virtually nothing outside of work because they say they don't have time.


Canadian Policy Research Networks: Job Quality http:// Canadian Labour Congress (on employment trends)


In Britain, the number of people off work for mental and behavioural disorders such as depression is on the rise. Between 1995 and 2003 the numbers rose from 445,000 to 846,000.


A recent survey showed that almost a third of workers in Canada feel their health and safety is at risk because of their work.


Compared with those who do not enjoy their paid work, people who enjoy it are more than twice as likely to be satisfied with the balance between their job and family demands and half as likely to report being time-crunched.


Mo wonder we're tired: it's been estimated that, on top of (or perhaps because of) all the demands placed upon us, adults average just seven hours sleep a night, compared with nine to 10 hours in 1910. Some claim that massive sleep deprivation brought on by the frantic pace of our lives is linked to serious illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, and strokes, as well as depression. That might be partly because stressed-out people tend to adopt unhealthy habits: a 1999 Statistics Canada study on working hours and health found that overworked Canadians are more likely to smoke; more cigarettes, drink more alcohol, and eat more unhealthy food.

Japanese studies have linked longer working hours to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and an increased likelihood of an early death. The Japanese even have a name for it: karoshi, or death from overwork.

Copyright Canada and The World Oct 2004