Canada's work-life balance more off-kilter than ever

October 25, 2012

Despite years of warnings about striking work-life balance, Canadians are in a deeper rut than ever.

Almost two-thirds of us are working more than 45 hours a week – 50-per-cent more than two decades ago. Work weeks are more rigid, with flex-time arrangements dropping by a third in the past 10 years. To top it off, only 23 per cent of working Canadians are highly satisfied with life. That's half as many as in 1991.

These new findings are part of the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, a survey of more than 25,000 Canadians from all provinces and two territories. It's the third such study in two decades by professors Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario.

The study covered a vast swath of workload and work-life balance issues, from the role of gender in income and parenting-task distribution to the way work roles affect physical and mental health.

The findings provide various measurements of Canadians' work-life balance. Among them: While workplaces have long talked about creating better work-life balance for their employees, one-third of Canadians feel they have more work to do than time permits. That number rises to 40 per cent when family roles are taken into account. "If we want to build the case of being the best country in the world to live, we've got to make changes to make that the case," Prof. Duxbury said.

Younger Canadians are taking change into their own hands – by having fewer children. More than a quarter of respondents had no children, and of those, more than made that choice to put their career first. Participants without children were much younger than the survey average – and that, Prof. Duxbury said, was "a way to satisfy work demands."

Those who do have children find themselves increasingly wedged between responsibilities – the sandwich generation that must take care of aging family members alongside children.

While family responsibilities weighed heavily on a quarter of respondents, workplace responsibilities took a heavier toll, and were more likely to eat into family duties than vice versa. Workplace roles placed a higher strain on women, who, despite having primary or equal responsibility to provide the family income in half of families, are still largely the primary caretakers of children.

More than half of the survey's respondents took work home with them, putting in an average of seven extra hours a week from home. Nearly two-thirds spent more than an hour a day catching up on e-mails; one-third spent more than an hour e-mailing on their days off.

And while fewer workers doing the same tasks may make an employer's budget more efficient, it doesn't help workers' efficiency. One-third of participants found that overloaded work and family responsibilities had a high tendency to cause them to lose sleep or dramatically reduce their energy levels.

This leads to everything from sick days to slower workers – perpetuating the cycle. "Organizations are fooling themselves if they think they're getting increased productivity by expecting those who they have left to do more," Prof. Duxbury said.

Striking the right balance can require serious life and scheduling changes. Nathalie Godbout and her family have made major adjustments in their lives to balance her job as a partner with the Saint John law firm Lawson Creamer. The mother of two children, ages 2 and 5, works intense days, often starting at 6:30 a.m.

To avoid the pressure of constant e-mails, Ms. Godbout has set an auto-reply letting people know she won't respond right away. "The universe is kept at bay because they're told that I respond to things at a certain time," she said.

She builds family time into her schedule; her rigorous work days let her take a full week off every six to seven weeks. And at home, Ms. Godbout's family has elected for her husband to be a stay-at-home parent. "It's a non-traditional configuration that has, at times, been met with some skepticism – but it works ideally for us," Ms. Godbout said.

One of the major limitations of the study may serve to make the results even more telling. Participants, largely public servants and not-for-profit workers earning more than $60,000 annually, skewed the result toward higher income than the Canadian average. (The median total family income in 2010 was $69,860, according to Statistics Canada.) The study found that the less-affluent the family, the more likely it was to feel burdened by excess workloads, so the higher-income skew could mean that the picture of work-life balance in the study – however gloomy – is actually a "best-case scenario," Prof. Duxbury said.

The perception of flexibility in an employee's workday significantly reduces how overloaded he or she feels, she added. Workplaces need to allow flexibility in hours not through policy, but through an understanding management, she said.

"To change workplace culture is a leadership issue. We need organizations' leaders to not keep pushing this down to HR and saying, 'Fix it.'"

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