Canada pays a price for overburdened workers, finding balance is in the public interest – News/National/Editorial
Published Thursday, Nov. 04, 2010. Last updated Friday, Nov. 05, 2010.

It would be wonderful if striking the appropriate balance between life and work were entirely a matter of individual responsibility. C’est la vie. Get over it.

Rugged individualism is wonderful in theory. But it’s totally false to the way most of us experience the world. We don’t scrabble out an existence on our own – we work in offices, we pay taxes to governments, we have families – and what happens in one domain necessarily affects what goes on in the other.

People don’t just get over it. They become physically ill from stress, or they suffer depression. If they have any sort of leverage at all – as knowledge workers tend to have, once the economy heats up – they quit and look for other jobs. Or they work for themselves. Or they don’t work at all.

That is why work-life balance is not purely a private matter. There is a public interest in combatting weariness that harms people’s health and happiness. That weariness seems all too common nowadays, to judge from levels of depression, stress leave and absenteeism, and a $10-billion annual tab for lost output.

Modern technologies offer the promise of a vast new realm of flexibility and experimentation in work arrangements. There will be tradeoffs. BlackBerries may free people from “the office” while extending work responsibilities nearly around the clock. But there are strong arguments for exploring that more flexible realm.

Flexibility is the best answer to massive social change that has made total, full-on commitment to the workplace infinitely more difficult. In most two-parent Canadian households, both parents do paid work. There are also a large number of single parents, and a fast-growing population of elderly people who need help to live outside an institution. In case no one has noticed, there is often no one on the home front full-time. The 12-hour day is passé.

Public policy needs to catch up to and reflect the reality of people’s lives. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s proposal to give tax and employment insurance benefits to Canadians who care for elderly relatives aims in the right direction. It wouldn’t eliminate the burden of care on individuals, but it would reduce it. (How to pay for it in a slow economy is an unanswered question.)

Corporations need to understand the aspirations of their employees, especially when the demographics change in our aging society and talented employees become scarce. Employees need to be open to more intensified work that increases their productivity. The Canadian division of KPMG, an accounting firm, offers elder care and a concierge service that does personal chores for employees, among other programs. Because most of its 5,000 employees are paid for billable hours, the company tracks individual productivity closely. It has found value in flexibility and innovation.

The supposed glory days (before the horrible phrase “work-life balance” was invented) were far from perfect. In the days when individual responsibility ruled, pregnant employees could be denied some benefits. That era ended only in 1989 when the Supreme Court of Canada declared that to deny a woman benefits for being pregnant was illegal discrimination. Why, asked the late Chief Justice Brian Dickson, should women pay the price for society of bearing children?

As society changes, our notion of who pays what price changes. It is not the government’s role to try to engineer a family-friendly workplace. But overburdened people may need support. Some employees have special-needs children, or sick parents to look after; some in the “sandwich generation” have both. It’s no use asking them simply to get over it. That’s a prescription for physical and emotional exhaustion.

The wisest course is to share the burden among individuals, employers and, where appropriate, government. One way or another, it will be shared anyway. The cost of worker absence due to ill health falls on companies and in many cases the government-funded health-care system. The cost in turnover of unhappy workers falls on corporations. A study from 2000 estimated the cost of employee churn in law firms at $315,000 per employee.

There’s also a hidden cost when society fails to make accommodations for the reality of child-rearing. Make it difficult to raise happy children – or to be happy raising children – and people will have fewer children.

There’s a reason adults talk more about work-life balance than just about any other topic. They are running as fast as they can, but like Stephen Leacock’s horseman are headed in all directions at once. Through the innovative use of technology and an openness to more flexible arrangements, Canadian life can be made less burdensome and more productive.

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