PM focuses on worker unrest

Says we need to ‘get real’ about impact of changing economy
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2017
Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a town hall in Hamburg, Germany, on Feb. 17, where he said inequality has made citizens distrust their governments and their employers: “It turns into ‘us versus them.’” Credit: Morris Mac Matzen (Reuters)

An impassioned call to action from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put worker unrest firmly in the spotlight.

On Feb. 17, Trudeau told a gathering of 400 politicians and business leaders in Hamburg, Germany, that worker anxiety needs to be addressed as employees begin to endure the harsher effects of a globalized labour market.

“No more brushing aside the concerns of our workers and our citizens,” said Trudeau, according to the Canadian Press. “We have to address the root cause of their worries, and get real about how the changing economy is impacting people’s lives.”

“When companies post record profits on the backs of workers consistently refused full-time work — and the job security that comes with it — people get defeated,” he said. “Inequality has made citizens distrust their governments, distrust their employers. It turns into ‘us versus them.’”

Trudeau also asked that employers refrain from leaving employees “overworked and undervalued,” while enabling workers to modernize their skill-sets.

Causes of worker unrest

Employers simply haven’t been paying enough attention to employee concerns, according to Linda Duxbury, a work-life balance expert in Ottawa.

“Work takes up a significant chunk of our time and is a significant part of our identity,” she said. “It’s important that people have access to meaningful work, and I don’t think that many employers see their employees as anything more than a cost.”

As menial jobs disappear, so does the middle class — the group Trudeau chose to champion, said Duxbury.

“The reality is those people are redundant,” she said. “Business doesn’t hire for moral reasons. Business is in business to make money.”

“When we automate all these jobs, we have winners and losers. The losers are people who used to do the jobs and only have the skills to do the jobs that are no longer there. That leaves jobs without people and people without jobs. It’s a huge trend.”

We’ve automated and focused on doing more with less, said Duxbury. “Knowledge workers and people who have information skills that can’t be automated become increasingly valuable in the workplace. However, the middle has gone.”

Employee uncertainty has sparked the rise of populist movements in the United Kingdom and United States, making this a crisis worthy of national attention, said Mallika Banerjee, professor of organizational behaviour at McGill University in Montreal.

“The pace of technology is changing so fast, it has really caught a lot of middle-class, white-collar workers by surprise,” she said. “People may not to be able to pin down whether or not their job is going to be washed away, but it’s about the next generation, too.”

Until someone steps forward to take responsibility for reskilling workers for the future, uncertainty will remain, said Banerjee.

“Because the jobs that will be created are very high-skilled, it may be difficult to train some of the people who are displaced. So I think there is kind of a tide to restrain the pace of this technological change and globalization.”

The link between societal unrest and worker anxiety is very real, said Beverly Beuermann-King, a resiliency, stress and wellness strategist in Little Britain, Ont.

“When we look at the top sources of stress for people, it is things such as the kinds of changes that are taking place, and then the uncertainty around those changes — not knowing what it’s going to look like for the future,” she said.

Everything is interconnected, said Beuermann-King. “Whenever there’s unrest or uncertainty, it certainly has an impact on all aspects of our life.”

Helping employees cope

One of the reasons there has been a backlash is people were not prepared, said Banerjee.

“They were not told what was really happening and now suddenly, after 20 years of globalization, people sort of figured out that ‘Oh, we have lost out,’” she said. “I feel there needs to be some kind of public-private partnership in this between employers and government, not to resist the change, but ‘How can we keep you informed and help you?’”

Keeping workers informed about potential changes can be helpful, said Banerjee.

“Part of the anxiety and stress comes from the lack of information,” she said. “Even if employers can have a much more open discussion with their employees about changes that are going to happen… There is a lack of information exchange and sharing. That’s where part of the anxiety comes from.”

Employees need several factors in place in order to be at their best, said Beuermann-King.

Those include: knowing what’s expected of them and how they’re connected to the larger organization, the ability to speak up and be heard, non-hostile environments, support and belonging. Workers require adequate resources to complete their job, and want to use their talents to the best of their abilities, she said.

“We spend an incredible amount of time at work,” said Beuermann-King. “Most vision statements, mission statements, benchmarks for companies have people as their most important resource, yet they may not be making decisions that support that.”

Business success entails a number of different factors — it’s not just about the bottom line, she said, and Trudeau’s comments show leaders and employers have awoken to this issue.

“It’s also longevity. If you have a great bottom line but are wasting money on job turnover, or training and retraining people because you’ve always got new people coming in, then you’re not being as effective and efficient as possible. Success is not just money. It’s also about ‘Are we as efficient and effective as we can be?’”

In the face of a troublesome economic climate, employers need to continue cultivating a workplace culture of openness and respect, said Beuermann-King.

“A lot of what Justin Trudeau was talking about comes under that category,” she said. “We want to respect (workers’) time, their talents, their energy and commitment, and we want them to know it matters that they’re there or they’re not. I think that’s really big — how do we show that respect and appreciation?”

Additionally, employers need to ensure workers aren’t being overworked at the expense of short-term success, said Duxbury.

Some employees continue to be worked off their feet, while others remain out of a job — both “incredibly unhealthy” mental-health scenarios.

“Employers have to start measuring the cost of understaffing, which up to now was kind of invisible,” she said. “They have to start tracking the fact that they don’t have enough people to do the work that’s being expected to things like absenteeism levels, turnover rates, prescription drug use, mental health issues in the workplace.”

“We’re seeing a lot more depression, anxiety. Where’s the cost there? We have to start looking at this much more broadly, and I think the government is going to have to maybe legislate things — which is not going to be popular.”

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