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Linda Duxbury is a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. (Linda Duxbury)
Linda Duxbury is a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. (Linda Duxbury)

Duxbury: How corporate anorexia is hurting our work force Add to ...

This is Part 3 in a series of interviews with the gurus of leadership and management theory.

Linda Duxbury , a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, has been a long-time researcher of organizational health in the private and public sectors. In this interview, she talks about increasing work intensification in Canada, how corporate anorexia can be lethal, and makes a pitch to bring back secretaries to help overworked managers and professional people.

The Leadership Guru Interviews

What’s new in the field of organizational health?

Every decade I conduct a pulse check of Canada’s work force with Chris Higgins of the Richard Ivey School of Business – this is our third look over a 20-year period at how Canada is faring. Each study has a different focus. In 1991, when the boomers were younger, we looked at things like day care arrangements. In 2001, we dug into how individuals coped and how employers helped them cope. Now we are moving into the concept of intensification, the idea that there is too much to handle – too much at work, too much at home, too much total.

Many employers tell us they have dealt with work-life balance, and that it’s now passé as an issue. They have implemented flexible benefits and family-friendly policies. But we’re seeing in our research that workload and work intensification had shot up dramatically.

We look at workload in two ways: Total time commitment, and the unremitting nature of work. As you rise in the organization, there are no breaks from work. You are not only expected to donate your work day to the organization but also your nights and weekends.

Technology is taking over, and not necessarily in a helpful way. We have an expectation in organizations that employees will be available 24/7, and will respond 24/7. In our latest study, we asked how much time people spent on work-related e-mails during a work day and a non-work day, and found it’s almost four hours during work days and just over another two hours on work-related e-mail during non-work days.

Balance can’t be achieved just by flexible work arrangements and benefits. You won’t get balance in your work force if you don’t start looking at work load – work intensification. You have to deal with the belief that if employees are not available 24/7 in many work cultures, that is a career-limiting move. In today’s work environment if you’re not willing to do it, someone else is.

What else is coming out in the research?

We are studying what contributes to this feeling of work intensification, and how it all links to stress. The factor that is probably most important for employers to recognize is eldercare, which has not been addressed by government, communities, or companies. Over 60 per cent of our sample face care issues, especially older employees who have responsibilities for elder dependents. As one person said to us, “It’s quite different from stress at work. Your parents are dying – it hurts the heart.”

We need to start having a discussion now, because the boomers are caring for their parents; the Gen-Xers in some cases are caring both for their parents and younger children as they waited to have kids; and if we look further out down the road, with so many children tending to be the only child or part of a two-child family, the eldercare demands on them will be particularly acute compared to what we are seeing now.

Do bosses care about work intensification?

We have a mythology that hours at work is a good measure of productivity and, in addition, that presence at work and staying long hours is a good indication of commitment, engagement, loyalty, dedication. Those beliefs get in the way of recognizing some important factors that turned up in our research. Work intensification and overload is the biggest predictor of stress, depression and of taking mental health days at work, which is totally preventable absenteeism.

We asked in our research study, “How often did you just not go in to work because you were physically or emotionally fatigued and couldn’t face work?” We found 38 per cent of respondents missed work for this reason at least once in the six months prior to the study. Those who did miss work for this reason tended to take an average of three days off for this reason, which in my mind is symptomatic of impending burnout.

We work people intensely in the short term but the impact tends to be felt six months to a year or a year-and-a-half later. That impact costs, but it is much more difficult to measure, and businesses are not paying attention.

We have taken most of the fat out of the system. Most organizations I deal with are anorexic, and anorexia is lethal in the long term. So is not having enough staff to do the work or meet the expectations, or having too many expectations and number one priorities for the number of people you employ, both of which are huge predictors of work intensification.

So I have to take the stress and hard work out of the organization?

You don’t have to take it completely out. The data shows people can work 60 hours for a week, two weeks, six weeks – but they can’t work it forever. So the healthy model of work is a hill and valley model, where sometimes we are at peak performance, because a major project is due, so we go all out to get it completed. People can work six months of 60 hours, but the problem is when you have no valleys. And I would say many organizations have very few valleys, especially at the front-line manager and professional level, as they have taken out things that allowed people a little time for reflection and socializing.

What would I say to employers? Bring back secretaries. Bring back people to answer the phones, and do the administrative paperwork. Is it a good use of your managers’ and professional people’s talent to have them doing all their clerical work in addition to everything else? I don’t think so; I think it’s a false saving.

Your figures on e-mail use are astounding. What do we do?

We have to start having a dialogue on what is the appropriate use of this technology, and then we have to start calling people on their bad behaviour because it doesn’t have the positive impact that is often thought. From our research, for example, a boss who checks his BlackBerry while in a meeting or talking to a subordinate is not seen as important or overworked, but as someone who can’t get their act straight and who cares more about the unknown person at the other end of the device than the people who he or she is supposed to be managing.

Our data from other research shows that most individuals get this technology with the intention that they will separate work and family – they will not use it in family time. The 24 people in that longitudinal study all held good intentions at the start. But nine months later only four of them were actually successful at imposing limits. When we asked them why things changed, they told us it’s because of the constant pressure and expectation from their boss, colleagues, and clients that they will be always available. No dialogue was taking place with the boss, colleagues or clients on what reasonable expectations might be.

Employers are giving these devices out thinking they are getting better customer service and more work out of people. But we have to start thinking about what kind of work we are getting out of them. Our research indicates a lot of people are managing their life by managing their in-basket. Instead of considering how best to tackle the issue in an e-mail – instead of considering how to handle it in a different or better way – they are focused on who they can pass it on to so the item is no longer in their inbox. That’s not a good sign for Canadian organizations.

Is it also that the people at the top of organizations go through life without valleys and expect everyone else to?

The senior executives I have talked to are disingenuous. They say, “Just because I work long hours and on weekends doesn’t mean the people I report to must. It’s convenient for me to work on Sundays. I’m just cleaning up, and when I send messages they don’t need to respond.”

But when I talk to the people below them, they discount those comments. They say, “If my boss is on, I need to be on as well, because if I’m not and something slips through the cracks, I’m in trouble.” Leaders are sending notices of 8 a.m. Monday meetings on Sunday night at 11 p.m. Is that appropriate?

E-mail has allowed us to get sloppy in priority-setting and planning because we think we can handle everything through knee-jerk reactivity. Technology is a tool, and like any tool we have to discuss how to use it appropriately. But that’s not happening in many organizations.

Whose ideas and research do you turn to – who excites you?

He’s an oldie but goodie: Jeffrey Pfeffer. I had the opportunity to meet him the other day. He’s one of my idols. He was ahead of his time. His book The Knowing-Doing Gap came out years ago, but we’re still making the same mistake over and over again. E-mail is a good example: The gap between what we know and what we do leads to bad results. He has been writing about human capital for a long time; he got it a long time ago, but we have ignored him.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

If your organization wishes to be a part of Linda Duxbury’s research, please contact her at linda_duxbury@carleton.ca.

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