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Drawn Off Topic: Rita MacNeil (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Drawn Off Topic: Rita MacNeil (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)


Singer Rita MacNeil on work-life balance Add to ...

Rita MacNeil is a Gemini- and Juno-winning singer-songwriter. Her latest CD is Saving Grace. She will be performing on Dec. 2 at Hamilton Place in Hamilton, on Dec. 3 at Centre in the Square in Kitchener, on Dec. 5 at Showplace Performance Centre in Peterborough, on Dec. 16 at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, and on Dec. 17 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton.

Recent university studies have found that Canadians are working longer hours, taking work home and are increasingly less satisfied with their work-life balance. Have you seen the balance shifting from that of a generation ago, either in your own life or those of others?

Yes, certainly I’m seeing there’s more pressure to bring home more. And provide. It can certainly be a struggle to find that balance. Losing that can be very dangerous. Even when I’m out on tour, one of the things I’m thinking of when I’m out there is, “It’s going to be good to get back so I can have the family and my friends over.”

The big myth, when the computer age hit us, was that technology would ease the workload, granting us all more time for leisure. The opposite is true. What happened?

Technology happened. People got caught up in it in a big, big way. Work was a workplace and it was a certain hour to a certain hour. Everywhere you go now, it’s computers. It extends the workplace. You’re taking it with you. It’s become something you’re wearing. You’re never really far from it. It can be all-consuming.

You’re in a creative field. Is it ever work?

It is to me. The pleasure, for me, is performing. It’s the pre-performance, it’s the getting there, getting everything ready. Once I’m on the stage, yes, it’s work because you’re designated for time there, but it’s enjoyable because it involves people, contact with people. It’s very wonderful to be able to do that. And when I’m done my tour, or my concert, I deal with all the other things I have to do or want to do, which is the [song]writing and the making of CDs.

I don’t look at [songwriting] as work. It’s very much from me, from a deep part of me, so I’m not detached from it. I’m very involved. I feel in my life I have a very good balance because people are so important to me and I love that connection.

Much of our work-life imbalance could be addressed by simply wanting less. Caught on a treadmill of consumerism, or excessive consumerism, might we not consider stepping off and working less for less “stuff”?

It’s hard to speak for others. What their ambitions and wants are. But for my personal experience, I did this very feng shui kind of thing a few years ago that involved getting rid of stuff that had accumulated. I don’t really buy anything unless I really, really need it. I find after a time you have all you want, anyway. Not all you want – all you need. I had a great feeling of relief when I got rid of stuff that was around me. To me, the less stuff, the better the life.

European workplace norms are a dream here: shorter work weeks, earlier retirement, more generous maternity leaves and vacation allotments. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Oh, we can do it, but in the system we have, will that ever happen? When you’re talking individuals, it’s all very well and good, you have to get enough people who want this to make this happen – and therein lies the struggle. That’s a tremendous machine to turn around.

Studies have shown that the productivity of overworked and overpressured employees drops and sick-day absences go up. Would it not be in an employer’s self-interest to address these demands?

That would be a dream. Anything’s possible. Once you see the benefits, companies see the great benefit in this, that would be the start and things can snowball once they’re initiated and handled right. It’s a good place to start.

We’ve been speaking of situations of overwork stressing lives. I should mention an even worse reality: being unemployed. The no-work-life balance. No matter how stressful or demanding a job may be, it beats not working.

Oh, that’s for sure. That creates a whole other set of problems. I don’t know if balance even comes in there. It can be a devastating effect on everybody when there’s no work.

You have written songs about working people. Would you ever consider writing one specifically addressing the quest for a balance between working life and personal life, the idea of “getting it right”?

That’s a good title. I have people close to my thoughts and what’s going on around me. That could happen. You gave me the title. Now it’s up to me to put the rest together.

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