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A recent poll of Canadian CEOs suggests a majority agree work-life balance is a major concern. But more than half of those surveyed also agreed that it’s a personal, not a corporate responsibility. (Photodisc)
A recent poll of Canadian CEOs suggests a majority agree work-life balance is a major concern. But more than half of those surveyed also agreed that it’s a personal, not a corporate responsibility. (Photodisc)

Part 2: Why your boss should care about work-life balance Add to ...

Work-life balance issues is taking a personal toll on Canadians. It's also costing Corporate Canada millions of dollars. Part 2 of a six-part series

Ottawa high-tech entrepreneur Rick Escher thinks of himself as a typical "9-to-5" guy.

But the routine looks a lot closer to 24/7 for the 50-year-old president of financial software maker Recognia. His Blackberry is always on. He logs onto his laptop from home - in the morning, and again in the evening after his two toddlers are in bed. Then, he'll often make late-night phone calls to his company's representative in Asia.

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It's a familiar reality for millions of Canadians. Technology has blurred the lines between work and home life - for better and for worse.

Many of us are also just doing more work, period. Look at a successful professional - a manager, teacher or health-care worker - and you're likely to see someone working long hours: In 2008, even before the recession had hit, close to two million Canadians were working 50-plus hour a week, up 23 per cent from a decade earlier.

And, as we struggle with crushing demands of work and family, we're more stressed and more likely to miss work or seek medical help than ever before.

The toll isn't just a personal one.

Our inability to balance our jobs and our home life is costing corporate Canada as much as $10-billion a year in rising absenteeism, lost output, lower productivity, missed deadlines and grumpy customers, according to estimates by business professors Linda Duxbury of Carleton University and Christopher Higgins of the University of Western Ontario.

In many ways, the recession is making the crisis worse. Layoffs and downsizing means whatever our hours are, fewer of us are doing more.

"Companies are getting rid of people, but they're not getting rid of work. It's work intensification," explains Prof. Duxbury, who along with Prof. Higgins, is conducting a third major national study of work-life balance involving as many as 100,000 workers.

"So you download clerical work on your managers and professionals, and you tell them to 'suck it up and deal with it, and be grateful' because they're lucky to be still working."

It isn't that your boss isn't aware of the problem. A recent poll of Canadian CEOs for The Globe suggests a vast majority agree work-life balance is a major concern. But more than half of those surveyed also agreed that it's a personal, not a corporate responsibility.

What they might be missing is this: Companies pay a steep price when employees are overworked, stressed and unhappy - maybe not today, but next month or next year when they walk out the door.

When disgruntled workers quit, it hits the bottom line in higher turnover and recruitment costs. A 2000 study of Canadian lawyers by Toronto-based Catalyst estimated that the constant churn costs law firms $315,000 per employee (including finding and training replacements).

The upside is that creating a better work environment may actually save money, if it means talent is easier to find and keep. One study of flexible work hours at Hydro-Québec, for example, showed that the company got a better than four-to-one payback for every extra dollar it spent on the benefit due to lower turnover. A 2008 survey of U.S. technology companies similarly found that giving workers the option of working from home improved retention, cut costs and increased productivity.

But in a slow economy, keeping workers is a relatively low priority for most companies. Your employer isn't likely to feel the need to create a happier or healthier workplace because a long line of people will take your job if you falter.

What is more, in this environment, it can be a lot tougher to say "no" to extra assignments or unpaid overtime.

That attitude is painfully short-sighted, according to Prof. Duxbury. She says employers are losing the loyalty of their best employees at the worst possible time. Like most other industrialized countries, Canada is on the cusp of an era with far fewer workers - particularly those with the most skills and education - as the population grows older.

The economy will eventually recover. But the broad demographic shifts shaping Canadian society are immovable. And it's unclear employers are ready for what's coming.

"We're moving into a sellers' market for labour," Prof. Duxbury explains. And in this new era, the most skilled, talented and educated will have the leverage to negotiate almost anything they want.

"I don't think businesses are ready for this at all," she says. "They've been spoiled by having an oversupply of labour. They've become lazy and very focused on the short-term. They've taken their human capital for granted because they could."

Women, in particular, will soon be top of mind for recruiters. For decades now, companies have benefited from the growing pool of women entering the labour market. But that trend is now reversing itself, according to recent projections by Toronto-Dominion Bank economist Beata Caranci. She estimates that the participation rate of women in the work force will drop from nearly 62.8 per cent today to 56 per cent in 2030, and 53 per cent by 2050.

To counter the declining participation of women, employers will need to get a lot more creative about enticing mothers to stay in the labour force, and to return after they have children. That means they'll have to offer more flexible benefits, including heavily subsidized daycare and extended leaves of absence during child-rearing years.

"Re-engineering jobs to provide flexible work options is a necessary next step," Ms. Caranci says.

There are already clear signs of growing strain in the workforce. Canadians are taking 21 per cent more unscheduled days off to deal with personal issues than they did a decade ago. And if you and your mate are feeling incrementally more squeezed for time together, it's probably because you are: Couples are working 7 hours more a week than in 1976. Add in the problem of eldercare - workers in their prime having to care for aging parents, and sometimes young children as well - and the picture starts to look grim.

Our attitudes about work are about as sunny: In a recent Florida State University study on the impact of the recession, 40 per cent of American workers said their jobs were not as important to them as they once were - tied, perhaps, to the fact that 70 per cent of those surveyed said most days at work felt like they would never end.

Experts say the key to dealing with the looming demographic crunch is to make it easier for workers to balance their jobs and their lives.

One way to do that is what those in the benefits business call "total rewards."

Forget a take-or-leave-it salary, three weeks off and a pension. In the future, workers may get an envelope with $100,000, along with the freedom to spend the cash virtually any way they want on an array of benefits, including buying or selling their time off.

Two months off and no corporate pension. Fine. All cash and no vacation. That's okay, too.

A clutch of companies in other countries, including the Bank of Scotland, already offer that kind of complete flexibility. But no major Canadian company is ready to go that far yet, according to Bob McKay, a senior benefits consultant with Aon Hewitt Canada in Toronto.

About a quarter of Canadian companies currently allow their employees to move some cash around between various offerings in their compensation package, such as buying a bigger pension, more holidays, better health care or health club memberships, according to a 2009 Aon Hewitt survey of more than 200 organizations. Most, however, offer relatively little choice.

So when will your boss show you she cares?

It's comes back to supply and demand.

At the height of the oil sands boom in 2008, one large Alberta company explored the idea of giving workers complete control of their compensation packages as a means of standing out in a tight labour market. Then, "the bottom fell out" of the boom and the project was quietly shelved, according to Mr. McKay, who was a consultant on the project.

Change is coming, but slowly. The aging population and the looming skills shortage will eventually force companies to offer workers unfettered choice. "The only question is when that will happen," said Mr. McKay, pointing out that different industries and professions may be pressured to change at vastly different paces.

For now, forcing people to shut off their Blackberries at home might be a simpler way to ease work-life stress.

Just don't tell Mr. Escher, the high-Stech entrepreneur. "I would have a hard time dealing with things without my Blackberry," he says.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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