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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.

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.

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