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Robert Merk (left), Ryan Couvrette and Alison Todd take a break at the cafeteria of the new offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers on York St., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Robert Merk (left), Ryan Couvrette and Alison Todd take a break at the cafeteria of the new offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers on York St., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

STRESS

Work-life balance: the impossible dream? Add to ...

Employers understand that sometimes it’s best to be upfront with employees: There will be days, weeks, even months of long, hard hours on the job.

In some workplaces, the load is intense and chronic. It’s called work intensification, and workers in many fields are feeling it. It's an issue of growing concern to employers, too, as they try to respond to competitive pressures without compromising the well-being of their employees.

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Anne Ristic, assistant managing partner at the Toronto office of business law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP, one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers, has noticed in her 27 years of practice that “the pace just continues to accelerate. A lot of it has to do with technology,” she said. “There are more demands to do more things more quickly.”

The pressure on employees has been exacerbated by the uncertain economic climate, according to a survey by management consulting firm Hay Group. “Business leaders in Canada and the U.S. face a significant challenge as they work to achieve aggressive growth targets with a work force that is already stretched thin,” Mark Hundert, Toronto-based national director of Hay Group, said when releasing the survey results.

Many employers are trying to help employees cope with the stress and achieve some semblance of work-life balance.

“We absolutely understand that we have to give something back,” explained Janine Szczepanowski, vice-president of leadership and entrepreneurial development at construction powerhouse EllisDon Corp., which also earned a spot on the Canada’s Top 100 Employers list.

At EllisDon, that give-back includes an “unlimited policy” that grants employees’ requests for days off as they need them, rather than according to an arbitrary vacation schedule. “We understand that employees work hard and sometimes need some extra time. People know they can take it, so it gives them the confidence that, ‘Yeah, I know I am going to work hard, but I know I am going to get some relief at the end.’

“It kind of encourages people to put in that little bit extra,” said Ms. Szczepanowski.

PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada strives for what it calls “work-life flexibility.” During peak periods, such as tax season, the firm’s professionals and staff are encouraged to ask for help if they find themselves swamped. During less busy periods, they are encouraged to “take the foot off the pedal and take some time off,” said Hazel Claxton, the firm’s Toronto-based human capital leader.

Employees should understand that asking for help doesn’t mean they are any less career driven. “You don’t have to do it by yourself. We are here to help,” said Ryan Couvrette, a senior manager in PwC’s banking capital markets and insurance group.

Like PwC, Stikeman Elliott encourages partners, associates and staff to take advantage of the lulls.

“When you’re doing a really intense project, it will be all hands on deck and you’ll need to be there late and you may go a couple of weeks working really intensively and so on,” Ms. Ristic said. “I think people can put up with a lot if they are really enjoying their work.”

But when the project ends, you don’t need to be sitting at your desk at nine o’clock the next morning, she said.

Corporate leaders at EllisDon, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Stikeman Elliott say employees who know what is expected of them – and how their employers will support them in meeting those expectations – are better equipped to meet the demands of their jobs, even when the demands are heavy.

At PwC, senior members of the firm monitor the hours people are logging and intervene to lighten the load if someone is veering into “the red zone” of overwork, which can take a toll on effectiveness, said Ms. Claxton.

“We have made work-life flexibility one of our [main]priorities as part of our longer-term business strategy,” Ms. Claxton said. The focus is paying off, and employees are clocking fewer overtime hours.

For those who request it, Stikeman Elliott provides coaching on time management, practice management and stress reduction. Lawyers can negotiate a reduction in the billable hours that are expected of them and – recognizing that after-hours work cannot always be avoided – the firm provides a technology stipend so its lawyers can work from home on top-of-the-line equipment, Ms. Ristic said.

EllisDon’s employee assistance program helps employees line up medical care for family members or emergency child care, Ms. Szczepanowski said. “They can get that research done through the employee assistance program versus having to run around trying to figure out how the heck they are going to make five phone calls today.”

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