Doing more with less hurts employees and productivity

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/18/2002

Employee workloads are increasing because of fundamental flaws in the organization of work in the knowledge economy, say healthy workplace experts. However, companies aren’t helpless — they can buck the trend and improve the situation for workers.

“We have abandoned the principles of good management; we have abandoned the principles of clear direction,” says Bill Wilkerson, one of the founders of the Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health.

Job descriptions are often completely ignored and employees run from one crisis to the next, he says. Even when there is no urgency, employees are in a state of anxiety waiting for the next crisis instead of doing what it says they should be doing in their job description.

The results of a survey conducted for Health Canada of more than 31,000 working Canadians, released last month, reveals one in four people now work 50 hours or more a week while just one in 10 worked that much in 1991 (for more information go to www.hrreporter.com click on search and enter article# 2015).

This trend is hurting a lot of people, says Wilkerson. Far from becoming more productive, organizations are being hurt when employees are expected to work ever-longer hours. Stress levels have gone up dramatically and stress is a principal cause of rising absenteeism, he says.

Longer hours are also associated with unhealthy weight gain, increased alcohol consumption and increased smoking, according to Statistics Canada and the National Quality Institute.

“People are working more hours than they were even three years ago, while national productivity is slipping,” says Wilkerson. Early next month Wilkerson’s group and a number of prominent Canadian business leaders will introduce a new Charter on Mental Health and Addictions in the Knowledge Economy, which will include a series of recommendations for workplaces to curb rising stress levels.

There has always been stress in the workplace but it has intensified considerably in recent years, says Wilkerson. In too many organizations, people are overwhelmed with information delivered via modern technology. What’s more, middle manager ranks have not recovered from the downsizings of the last decade when their workloads increased. Now with each new task that lands on their desk they are forced to grab whoever they can to complete the work without any regard for whether or not the person is supposed to be doing that work.

“The big difficulty is that it takes seriously enlightened leaders to take on the issues and most people are actually much more ordinary,” says Michael Leiter, professor of psychology at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University and co-author of The Truth about Burnout.

The momentum is toward longer hours and trying to get more done from fewer people, but there are simple corrections that can be made that will not scare those who resist radical divergence from other organizations.

Workloads tend to increase incrementally in barely detectable ways. Additional responsibilities are added but nothing is ever removed, says Leiter who is a presenter at this week’s sixth annual Health, Work Wellness conference being held in Lake Louise, Alt.

“Universities are very good at adding things that are good to do, but they are absolutely atrocious at stopping the old stuff,” says Leiter, referring to his own workplace.

It takes discipline, but if an organization is serious about ensuring workloads stay at manageable levels they should introduce a formal process of determining which tasks need to be removed each time a new responsibility is added, he says. It forces organizations to think carefully about who is doing what and why.

Michael Koscec, president of employee wellness consulting firm Entec, says there are many examples of organizations being hurt by poorly designed work practices. By carefully reviewing the design, distribution and responsibilities of workplaces, organizations can find relatively easy solutions for creating healthier environments.

For example, one large clothing retailer was plagued by a manager turnover rate of 39 per cent per year. The company had a good reputation for well-trained managers so they were frequently raided by other retailers. “They figured it was costing them at least $1.5 million per year,” says Koscec who is also presenting some of his findings at the Lake Louise conference.

The company examined itself from an organizational health perspective. A number of factors were contributing to manager dissatisfaction, making them more receptive to overtures from the competition. Pay was only average, so the organization had to offer raises. And managers complained that it was unclear what was needed for promotion. That was cleared up.

But one of the bigger issues was work scheduling. Managers often had to work back-to-back shifts which would see them working until 2 a.m. one night and opening the store again at 9 a.m. the next morning. “It was a company policy not to do that but it wasn’t really enforced well. These back-to-back shifts were completely eliminated.”

The review of policies and practices, and the resulting changes dropped the turnover rate to 13 per cent in just eight months and it has stayed there since. “The other interesting part of that is, having gone through this, some of the other business measures went up,” said Koscec. Secret shopper scores for example went up after going through the organizational health review.

In another case, says Koscec, a major player in the energy sector was suffering from an inordinately high absentee rate. In some departments it was as high as 14 person days per year; the overall cost to the organization was about $6 million annually.

The company discovered that many employees felt managers were a problem. They were good at their traditional management responsibilities, but lacked basic understanding about employee well-being and work-life balance. New training was added for managers and then the company took it one step further and added employee absenteeism to the managers’ key performance indicators. With managers being held responsible for the absentee rate in their departments, the rate dropped by one person day per year within eight months. The company concluded that alone will save them about $875,000.

Healthy Workplace Week runs from Oct. 21 to Oct. 27. For more information go to www.nqi.ca/chww.

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