Chris Higgins believes he has finally drilled down on the root cause of a growing imbalance between work and family.
"We have found the enemy and it is us," he says.
In 2001, the professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario co-wrote what is regarded as the definitive study on work-life balance for Health Canada with Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Eric Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa.
The study revealed shocking details about how as many as 60 per cent of Canadians felt very stressed by the issue and believed their employers were not flexible enough to allow them to deal with the burdens of child and elder care, as well as overwork and time inflexibility.
Since then, Higgins, who is a professor of management science and information systems, has veered away from the study's conclusion that organizational policy will fix everything.
"My feeling is that most of the people complaining are the ones who use technology to fritter away days because they know they can work at home. The problem is a perceptual one, where people by choice think about work too much and can't relax," he says.
"There has to be a change from: 'Can someone solve my problem?' to: 'How can I solve it?' My research shows that on average, workers only need four hours of interrupted time a day to be productive," Higgins says. "The solution is to find and use that time. It's really as simple as this."
In 2000, Health Canada released one report about the growing imbalance in Canadians' lives between work and family. In 2004, it published 28.
Now that the size of the problem is out in the open, new research at universities and at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is beginning to move the discussion from assigning blame to finding solutions.
York University's Monica Belcourt sees the same dilemma. The director of graduate programs in human-resources management says companies do not want happier employees - they want them more productive and committed.
"Some of the most innovative programs are started first in organizations, but it's only for strategic alignment, something that helps competitiveness," she says. "But these rarely address the stress inducers of time flexibility, money and an inability to voice complaints.
"It's up to employees themselves, especially the front-line managers, to look at what is causing stress and move toward finding workable solutions," Belcourt says. "This (proactivity) makes them feel they have some control in their work environment, which is the key factor in fixing a work-life imbalance."
Belcourt uses the example of CIBC's backup child-care program, which provides onsite child supervision when regular daycare falls through. The program resulted from recurring employee suggestions. In the first six months, the bank saved 760 employee days, worth $150,000, by reducing normal absenteeism rates.
"People have to show their employers a (bottom-line) reason for making changes. I've seen many, many studies that show that every dollar invested in programs like this creates a $2 to $4 increase in productivity," Belcourt says.
Laurent Lapierre, an assistant professor of human resources at the University of Ottawa school of management, says he wonders if reducing work-life stress can be achieved simply from a bottom-up perspective.
"The culture of organizations is that change needs to come from the top down. Employees would have to have a lot of clout to demand changes," he says, although he admits that companies do a lot of benchmarking and watch what competitors do.
"Increased stress levels have become so normal that organizations don't pay all that much attention to them," Lapierre says. "So it's up to the employees to understand what causes an imbalance and then make certain decisions about how they will lead their lives. This usually requires a lot of support from the family rather than the company."
Researchers generally analyse work-family conditions at companies with more than 100 employees, 67 per cent of which say fostering balance is not their responsibility, despite Health Canada figures that put lost productivity due to stress at about $3 billion annually. Another $425 million is spent each year on stress-related medical costs.
The situation appears different, however, at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Despite dealing with tougher market forces, smaller firms report much lower levels of stress among employees and management.
"There's a different perspective toward what is possible and what's not. The common theme is that companies know their employee families and in tough times they cut money, not staff," says Garth Whyte, executive vice-president of the CFIB, which has about 100,000 members across the country.
The attitude is laid out in the federation's 2004 study: Fostering Flexibility: Work and Family. About 10 per cent of the federation's members responded and almost 90 per cent of those polled said company size allowed them to keep the workplace flexible.
Whyte says the biggest surprise was that 94 per cent said creating employee balance was an employer's responsibility and 53 per cent said government had no role to play.
"I think the big difference is that SMEs believe that (balance) is possible within their organization because they can anticipate employee needs, such as allowing flexible time off instead of demanding paid overtime. Once you start adding prescriptive policies you have less flexibility," he says.
"The bottom line is that employees are less stressed when they feel they are listened to and feel they can have a say. Any changes to address problems have to come from within the company. It has to be a win-win situation," Whyte says.
The Ivey school's Higgins believes workers can too easily be dragged into a work-family interface that has been virtually erased.
"I think we have to train people to shut out distracting things and therefore create a separation that is vital for any sort of balance in life," he says. "Their bosses have to get control themselves and pass it on. The more people who can get some sort of control back into their lives, the better."
(Mike Levin can be reached at email@example.com)