Organizations that treat their employees as mere commodities will soon pay a hefty price.
That’s the considered opinion of Linda Duxbury, co-author of a national study surveying the attitudes of 31,800 Canadian workers in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors.
Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Business, says the data sounds alarm bells employers ignore at their peril.
The information is contained in seven reports to be released over the next year. It is the bookend to a companion survey conducted 10 years ago examining work/life conflicts.
The most recent findings – the first report was released last month – show that Canadian workers are less loyal to their companies, face higher stress levels and work incredible amounts of unpaid overtime.
“Those things weren’t surprising,” says Duxbury. “But the degree of change (in attitudes) did shock me.”
Combined with the attacks of Sept. 11 and the anticipated exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce, Duxbury suggests a great transformation may be taking shape.
“Sept. 11 could create a watershed point that will affect our attitudes toward everything,” she says. “It’s like a death in the family. People begin to think about their own life and their own priorities. I think Sept. 11 will bring a lot of clarity.”
Among the mountain of data collected is a finding that 51 per cent of Canadian workers averaged 34 hours of unpaid overtime each month.
“From the people I’ve talked to (since Sept. 11), I don’t think they are going to take that any longer,” says Duxbury.
Canadian demographics show that the first wave of Boomers turns 55 next year. Public service employees, for example, are eligible for pensions at 55, and many are expected to retire. Duxbury expects that workers in private industry, also in their 50s, will consider the same path.
“They’re saying: ‘I’ve had enough, I’m working too hard.’ ”
Dissatisfaction is evident in the findings released this fall. For example:
– In 1991, 66 per cent of workers said they were highly committed to their organization. Only 50 per cent feel the same in 2001.
– Sixty-two per cent of people were highly satisfied with their jobs in 1991, compared to only 45 per cent today.
– The average employee spent 42 hours a week in paid employment in 1991, 45 hours in 2001.
– High stress on the job is twice as prevalent today as it was 10 years ago. Workers suffer from declining physical and mental health, take more sick days and use more prescription drugs.
Duxbury and co-author Chris Higgins of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario headed the 1991 and 2001 surveys. Based on the results, they are making numerous recommendations to government and industry.
To government, the authors argue for legislation protecting an employee’s right to refuse overtime, the right to take time off in lieu of overtime pay, and suggest that employees receive up to five days paid personal leave per year.
They also suggest that Ottawa take the lead in establishing national childcare and eldercare programs in conjunction with the provinces.
To business, they call for more flexibility over work hours and work location, increasing employees’ sense of control over their work, boosting the number of supportive managers, and focusing on creating more family-friendly work environments.
When the original survey was completed, companies and government read the reports but paid lip service to the results, says Duxbury.
“I think organizations now have to realize that all the downsizing, the restructuring and those kind of things aren’t risk-free. They’ve said to workers: ‘Hey, we don’t care about you, you’re just a commodity.’ ”
Sept. 11 has given many companies the excuse to downsize, but when the pendulum swings (she predicts in the next 12 to 18 months), firms looking for workers may face retribution.
“There are going to be a lot more good jobs available and a lot fewer workers to fill them,” says Duxbury. “People will be a lot more selective and some of these softer issues (flexibility, family-friendly environments, etc.) are going to be important.”
Duxbury hopes the study’s results will encourage government to make some decisions.
“In Canada we have under-employment and over-employment,” she explains. “We have that because payroll taxes and the costs associated with hiring people make it more attractive for companies to work who they have double and triple time.”
Companies that do push their employees are hurting themselves long-term, she adds. Many businesses are in a crisis-management reactive mode, forcing employees to burn the midnight oil to meet current demands.
“There is a lag effect that won’t show up for another six months to a year,” says Duxbury.
What happens, she says, is that after workers have met pressure-packed deadlines, they start to burn out, quit, collapse or take stress leave.
To compensate, companies must pay to recruit and train new people, pay for sick leaves (and associated drug costs) and face lower productivity.
“There are lots of ways to link what (shortsighted) companies do today to the bottom line. But they don’t track those costs.”
Part of the problem is that, during the past four decades, a large labour pool has allowed companies to have their way, says Duxbury. If employees didn’t like it, tough luck.
Soon, the shoe may be on the other foot.
(Results from Work-Life Balance in the New Millennium: Where Are We? Where Do We Need to Go? can be found at the Canadian Policy Research Networks’ website at www.cprn.org )