Employers dependent on unpaid overtime: report

Canadian employees work about five days per month of unpaid overtime, and their employers are highly dependent on this donated time, according to a recently released report.

“People are working a hell of a lot harder (these days). If you want to get ahead, you better show you’re committed by spending more time on the job,” said Linda Duxbury, a professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University and co-author of the 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study. The Health Canada report, which surveyed more than 30,000 Canadians, is the first of six addressing work-life conflict. The study shows a dramatic shift in workforce values in the last decade.

Approximately one in four respondents said they currently work more than 50 hours per week. One in three worked an additional one-and-a-half days of paid overtime in the month prior to the survey, while more than half worked two-and-a-half days of unpaid overtime. The report suggests that it has become much harder to meet job expectations during the normal nine to five working day.

“Technological change and the need to be globally competitive (has) increased the pressures on organizations and employees alike,” the report states.

These changes have put more of a demand on Canadian workers, said Duxbury. More than 70 per cent of those surveyed said office technology — e-mail, laptops, cellphones — has increased their stress levels and workload.

The competition to advance and succeed raises the bar higher and higher, and as family structures change, non-work demands are rising as well — 70 per cent of the respondents were parents and 60 per cent had elder-care responsibilities.

This growing work-life conflict is a result of “organizational anorexia,” said Duxbury. Companies are focused on short-term profits and will restructure and downsize to show immediate stakeholder returns, but they expect staff to work much more.

“A lot of organizations are too thin on the ground. They don’t have enough people to do the work and wouldn’t be able to function without overtime,” she said. Many workers are afraid to say “no” to overtime because they feel it’s a career-limiting move.

People can’t say “no” for various reasons, said Barbara Moses, author and president of BBM Human Resources Consultants Inc. One reason is because they’re so caught up in the “cult of busyness.”

“The boss says in a high-pitched tone, which suggests urgency, that he needs something done by tomorrow and the emotion of the message gets the employee into this busyness vortex,” she explained.

Employees think if they don’t work overtime, they’ll be seen as not carrying their weight or that they’re not being team players.

Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, said the concept of working overtime has a lot to do with societal myths and misperceptions.

“We think that (we) should be working overtime. It’s a perception that no matter what you do, whether your work is of value or not, it looks good to stay late. It shows you’re working hard even if you aren’t.”

Spinks recalls an episode of the television comedy show Seinfeld that satirized the reality of work today. One of the character’s car broke down and he had to leave it in the parking lot for the night. His boss saw the car the next morning at 6 a.m. and congratulated him for coming into work so early, and gave him a bonus. So, he left his car there for the whole week and got scores of congratulatory praise for “pulling his weight,” and “working hard,” even though he sat around and did nothing.

“It’s the business badge of honour,” Spinks said. “If I want high value, I must work late.”

At the same time workloads are increasing, organizations have been slow to adopt workplace practices intended to help employees balance work and home lives. Just 21 per cent of those surveyed said they work flextime, virtually unchanged since 1991. One per cent said they formally telework (work from home), although one in eight said they “guerrilla telework” (work at home done on an informal basis).

“Many managers who are reluctant to allow employees to formally telework are comfortable allowing ‘good’ performers to work informally on a contingent basis,” states the report. “This would suggest that working at home is possible and employees do want to use such arrangements.”

However, there has been no big shift in flextime over the decade, Duxbury said. The majority of Canadians work regular hours with no arrival and departure flexibility and no work location flexibility.

“If you take (flextime) into a culture where hours are a way to get ahead, a badge of honour, how can you use it? While organizations have talked the talk, they manage the same way as they managed line workers 40 years ago.”

The workforce today is made up of knowledge workers, they’re able to work more flexibly, and should be largely unsupervised in terms of what they do, she said.

Duxbury said Health Canada wanted solid data that would help people build the case for change. Employers have to focus on the costs of mismanaging employees instead of the costs associated with that change, she said. With the prospective labour shortage, this should be at the top of every employer’s agenda.

“Organizations can no longer turn people away because they’ll find other jobs. It’s not all about paying people more. There comes a time when money isn’t a motivator. It’s treatment that makes a huge difference.”

The report outlines a few recommendations for employers:

•identify ways of reducing employee workloads, especially for managers and professionals;

•recognize and reward overtime work;

•reduce reliance on both paid and unpaid overtime;

•give employees the opportunity to say “no” when asked to work overtime and it should not be considered a career-limiting move;

•make alternative work arrangements more widely available;

•look at career development through a “work-life” lens, employees should not have to choose between family and career advancement; and

•examine work expectations, rewards and benefits through a “life-cycle” lens.

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