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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. (Ryan McVay/Thinkstock)
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. (Ryan McVay/Thinkstock)

'Sandwich generation' increasingly trapped by work-life overload Add to ...

They call it the sandwich generation, but the reality for many is crushed, flattened panini.

More working Canadians are having to care for both their kids and their older relatives. It’s a squeeze that spells consequences for the workplace, from higher absenteeism and lost productivity to greater distraction and burnout.

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People have always juggled family care with work. But shifting demographics suggest the challenges are mounting as the population ages, workers have children later in life, more women join the work force, and people live longer. Roughly one-fifth of professionals in the country are working and taking care of both their kids as well as an older family member, a research paper released this week estimates.

The paper was written by Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University, and the University of Western Ontario’s Christopher Higgins.

The recession and changes in the labour market add another layer of pressure. Many of the pre-recession perks workplaces offered, such as free dry cleaning and daycare subsidies, evaporated during the economic downturn and haven’t come back. At the same time, workloads seem to have swelled and more people are having to take work home, leaving many professionals stressed and exhausted, the study says.

It’s a perfect storm for both workers and employers: Demographic trends suggest that the proportion of people juggling work, childcare and eldercare at the same time is only going to grow. And those pressures suggest employers keen on attracting and keeping staff may have to shift policies to adapt to this new reality.

The impact of doing double or triple duty on top of work is already materializing, the paper says, from missed days at work to stressed, overwhelmed workers.

The study, “Balancing work, childcare and eldercare: A view from the trenches,” focuses on highly educated managers and professionals, particularly those at larger firms, and is based on a national survey of work-life balance of 25,021 employees conducted in 2011 and 2012. Of those, almost 8,000 responded to questions about caregiving, of which researchers conducted 111 follow-up phone interviews.

Workplaces hit hard

More than a quarter of caregivers cope with the pressures of work and family by bringing work home, giving up on sleep and trimming social activities on a daily basis – a response that raises the chance of employee burnout (and grumpy workers).

“People say they’re short of sleep, grumpy, they take it out on customers and colleagues at work. And these are our knowledge workers ... who are expected to come in and be creative,” said Prof. Duxbury, one of the paper’s two authors. “This group is going to increase dramatically in size and in importance to businesses.”

They’re also more likely to see a drop in productivity (through distractions, fear of losing their jobs or a tougher time focusing at work) and a decline in the number of hours they can dedicate to work.

Both men and women in the sandwich category miss more days of work per year than their colleagues. Male caregivers miss 13.4 days, and female workers 19.4 days, compared with 7 days for men and 10.6 for women who aren’t caregivers.

Career repercussions

Caregivers are more likely to be absent from work, use company benefits and turn down promotions.

Some may wind up quitting, or taking a leave to fulfill family responsibilities. Others will curb their own career progress. A fifth of male and female employees who are caregivers said they have turned down promotions because their plates are too full.

Stress levels are higher among this group. Six in ten caregivers report emotional consequences of juggling work and looking after family, which include stress, anxiety and frustration.

“Employees in the sandwich generation are getting worn down by the demands on their time and lack the resilience to emotionally separate the work-life domains,” the report says.

It’s little wonder they’re getting worn out. Six in ten employed caregivers say they work more than 45 hours a week. On top of that, parents of young children spend more than 30 hours a week on childcare, while those taking care of elders spend an average of 10.7 hours.

Gender (it’s not just women)

Women are still the main caregivers, but men are increasingly likely to be caught in double or triple duty, and missing work or taking leaves as a result. Men, particularly Gen-Xers, “are also experiencing serious challenges balancing work and caregiving,” and are more likely to miss work because of mental and emotional fatigue as a result.

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