Work-life balance becoming worse

Absenteeism, stress rising: Study
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/04/2012

Canadians are working longer and harder than ever before and are increasingly having difficulty balancing work and home life, according to a study.

“Stress levels have gone up, as have work demands, and life satisfaction has gone down,” said Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and co-author of the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada.

“There are more employees balancing work, elder care and child care but, despite the talk, many companies have not made progress in the areas of work-life balance and employee well-being.”

The report surveyed 25,000 Canadians and is the third in a series — the first came out in 1991 and the second in 2001.

Sixty per cent of employees are working more than 45 hours per week, compared to 47 per cent in 2001 and 31.5 per cent in 1991.

Slightly more than one-half (54 per cent) take work home to complete, and these individuals spend another seven hours at work per week. Overall, the typical employee spends 50.2 hours in work-related activities per week.

“You’ve got your manager sending you an email on a Saturday morning… so the employee that wants to do a good job, or is afraid not to do a good job, spends the time answering it,” said Wendy Giuffre, principal of Wendy Ellen, an HR consulting firm in Calgary. “Your office, no matter where it’s based, comes home with you if you bring your laptop or BlackBerry.”

Employees should be encouraged to turn off all computers and work-related correspondence at home so they can spend time with their families, said Paul White, a mental health and work-life balance consultant in St. John’s, N.L.

Employers should also make it clear they do not need employees to be available at all times.

“Families understand there is pressure but mom or dad doesn’t need to be on call 24-7,” he said. “It’s up to the president or someone in leadership to work out a schedule… so you can make it almost like shift work.”

One of the reasons employees may be working longer hours is because of the demands of the global economy, said Chris Higgins, a professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont., and co-author of the report.

“Every organization nowadays is not just competing with domestic organizations, they’re competing around the world and some countries have cost advantages in terms of labour and we have to compete with them, which probably means doing more with less — so you have more work, less people.”

But working longer hours may be a trend caused by baby boomers in leadership positions and may go by the wayside once generations X and Y take on managerial and leadership roles, said Giuffre.

“(Leaders) who are in their 30s as opposed to 50s have a much different attitude,” she said. “They are turning off their BlackBerrys and they don’t answer things over the weekend. So, slowly and surely, it might turn around as leadership changes.”

Balancing child care, elder care

Many employees are overloaded by the dual demands imposed by work and family, found the study. One-third (32 per cent) reported a high work role overload, 26 per cent reported a high family role overload and 40 per cent felt overloaded by both.

One-half of survey respondents said they spend time each week as a caregiver for a child and 23 per cent spend time as a caregiver for an elder. And one in five employees have high levels of caregiver strain, found the study.

“Elder care is the next big thing,” said Higgins. “Sadly, we’ve been saying that for 10 years but what we neglected is that the older people are way healthier now than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. So the health-care dilemma has been delayed.”

One of the best ways to help employees address the competing demands of caregiving and work is flexible work arrangements, said Giuffre.

“You can have core hours where they have to be at the office and then have total hours of expected work and however you get those done is up to you,” she said. “There has to be a huge level of trust… but I think that’s one of the only ways to be able to get both done.”

Almost all private sector employers are offering flexible work arrangements — it’s pretty much standard, said Higgins.

“Employers get it. Nowadays, a lot of white collar jobs you can easily do at home, on the road, in hotel rooms.”

But 32 per cent of respondents said they have very little flexibility with respect to work hours and work location, while 42 per cent have moderate flexibility and 27 per cent have high flexibility.

Negative implications

One in four employees said work-life conflict negatively impacts their work performance. Over a one-year period, work-life challenges have caused employees to be absent from work more often (25 per cent), reduce their work productivity (22 per cent), make greater use of benefits (21 per cent) and reduce their work hours (19 per cent), found the study.

When it comes to absenteeism, one in three survey respondents missed work because of child care, with an average of 7.8 days missed per year.

One in 10 missed work for elder care, missing an average of 9.6 days per year.

To help employees manage work-life balance, companies should consider having flexibility around personal days and time off, said Giuffre.

“(That way), people don’t have to make excuses for not coming in or they don’t have to lie and say they’re sick, which I honestly think there’s a lot of,” she said.

“If you’re going to have employees engaged in work, whether it’s four days a week or five days a week, you have to make sure you alleviate as much of the external pressures as possible.”

In terms of the negative implications, work-life issues have significantly reduced employees’ energy levels (36 per cent), amount of sleep (31 per cent), time for social activities (30 per cent) and time for themselves (27 per cent).

And 57 per cent of employees report high levels of stress, found the study.

“Everything comes down to stress. If you get too much stress in your life, then that leads to health problems, absenteeism problems… work-family conflict leads to stress — stress is the thing that breaks down the body,” said Higgins.

Preventing burnout

The prevention piece is very important and employers should encourage employees to take their vacations days, use their benefits — such as massages — and take care of themselves, said White.

“Companies do have to take note of this and do whatever they can… if you have a really good worker (who’s) all-around talented, multi-skilled, you don’t want to lose him or her but sometimes that happens — if they are overloaded with work and stress kicks in, they could be forced to leave the company,” he said.

Supportive managers are key when it comes to having effective work-life balance policies and practices, found the study. While 52 per cent of respondents work for a supportive manager, 16 per cent have an unsupportive manager and 33 per cent work for a “mixed” manager.

“It’s one thing to produce a profit and get the job done but if a manager is not supportive… one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel,” said White.

“That increases stress, mental illness, time off from work and it’s a lose-lose phenomenon.”

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