Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Andrea Ellison traded a higher income for less steady but more flexible work so she could spend more time with her children. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Andrea Ellison traded a higher income for less steady but more flexible work so she could spend more time with her children. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

DIRTY WORK

The business case for rebalancing work and life Add to ...

In the fourth of six-part series, The Globe and Mail takes a look into bathrooms, kitchens, basements and legislatures to see how families and nations tackle the chore challenge.

One night in January two years ago, Andrea Ellison hit the wall. Or, rather, she fell and broke her thumb while trying to answer an e-mail on her BlackBerry as she was running upstairs to bathe her toddler son.

DIRTY WORK: A SIX-PART SERIES

She was already putting in 50-hour work weeks as director of a public relations firm, coming home at 8 p.m. just in time to tuck the kids into bed, scarf down some food and then fire up the computer to do more work after trying to tidy up the house. Her job had already been hectic, but the workload had snowballed in recent years.

“I was just finding the juggle to be more and more difficult to manage,” said Ms. Ellison, a Toronto-based mother of two. “Even when I was at home, I found I wasn’t present.”

Three weeks later, she quit her job. She has since changed course, working both for herself and for Broad Reach Communications, a PR firm that allows staff – many of them women – to work flexible hours from home.

She’s not the only one seeking greater balance.

The recession and uneven recovery have left Canada’s work force struggling to meet increased job demands and keep up with household duties – including child care, elder care and chores. Not only are many organizations running leaner, leaving more work to be done by fewer staff, but technology has blurred the lines between office and home.

A study of 25,000 Canadian professionals last year found that 40 per cent reported high levels of overload, both at work and at home.

Before the downturn, plenty of companies offered perks to lure and retain workers, from free dry cleaning to car allowances to catering. Tougher economic times prompted many companies to cut back on “frills,” and sparked greater job insecurity just as workloads intensified. The percentage of employed people working 45 hours or more a week has surged, and more than half of employees take work home on evenings and weekends, the study by Carleton University and Sprott School of Business found.

As a result, Canadians are a stressed bunch. More than a quarter of Canadian workers describe their day-to-day lives as highly stressful, especially women and white-collar staff, with work as the chief source of worry, according to Statistics Canada.

This has implications for employers. Stress translates into lost productivity, absenteeism and more disability claims, with the total cost of mental health problems to employers pegged at about $20-billion a year, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. While not all of this can be attributed to work-life imbalance, Statscan reports that six in 10 highly stressed people identify work as their main source of stress.

Amid growing evidence that a happier, healthier work force is a more productive one, some companies are finding creative – and cost-effective – ways to support staff, says Neil Crawford, leader of the Best Employers in Canada study at Aon Hewitt, a consultancy that produces the list.

One is letting staff choose flexible rewards, a common practice in the U.K. that Mr. Crawford says is taking root in Canada – for example, giving workers $1,000 which they can allot to emergency child care, concierge services or high-end dental.

Offering ways to manage the competing demands on an employees’ time may also boost women’s ability to participate in the workplace. After finding that female scientists, for example, do nearly twice as much housework as their male counterparts, the authors of a 2010 Stanford University study concluded that institutions should provide flexible benefits that include housekeeping support as a normal part of doing business.

Some firms are making efforts to prevent burnout altogether. In Toronto, Klick Health, a health-care service provider, automatically turns its lights off at 6:30 p.m. to signal that it’s time to go home. They can be flipped back on, but they go off again an hour later to remind workers it’s getting late. “It’s a cue to go home. We work hard to make sure people aren’t staying late on a regular basis,” chief executive officer Leerom Segal said. The overarching strategy: “We don’t create a stressed-out environment in the first place,” he said, adding that his firm has the lowest voluntary staff turnover in the industry.

If there is one strategy employers can adopt to support staff, it is boosting flexibility (indeed, Klick allows some telecommuting and time off for appointments). Flexible hours and the ability to work from home at times top the wish list of working moms in a recent survey by Regus, a flexible workspace provider.

Flexibility benefits men, too. At Cisco Systems Inc., a maker of networking equipment, a number of policies promote work-life balance, including job sharing, reduced hours, remote work and sabbaticals.

David Heather, vice-president of human resources at Cisco Canada in Toronto, works two days a week from home – typical for a Cisco employee. On a recent Friday, he rattles off his schedule for the day: Wake up and spend time with his kids; send a few e-mails; skip the commute and walk them to day care. Then, back at home, call and videoconference with colleagues in the U.S. and Europe. At the end of the day, pick up his son. “It’s a great way to start my weekend.”

As for Ms. Ellison, she, too, has found better balance. She traded a higher income for less steady, but more flexible work, which has allowed her to spend more time with her children.

“I do miss the income. Let’s be honest about that.” The upside? “It’s just calmer,” she says.

HOW SOME COMPANIES ARE HELPING EMPLOYEES TO ADDRESS WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Firma Foreign Exchange Corp. Ltd.

Each employee receives five personal days annually to use as they choose, plus one half-day a month.

Achievers Solutions Inc.

It has a policy of closing the office at noon on the day before all statutory holiday weekends.

Grant Thornton LLP

During busy periods, employees who are working through the dinner hour can place a food order from an online menu.

Morningstar Research Inc.

Every four years, employees are eligible for a six-week paid leave for travel, language immersion, community service or simply to spend more time with their families.

Carswell

Employees can claim $5,000 to help cover adoption expenses.

Source: Great Place to Work Institute Canada

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular