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Work Force Singing a New Kind of Blues
The old industrial era was stressful for workers. Factories churning out endless consumer products were built around assembly line jobs, which were physically taxing and mind-numbingly boring. In today's global knowledge economy, robots or workers in developing countries do most of the factory work. The "blue-collar blues," as factory worker dissatisfaction was called in the sixties and seventies, no longer is a major threat to productivity.
Business and political leaders agree that knowledge, and
people's ability to develop and use it, gives companies and
countries their economic edge. Yet, there has been little
recognition that a healthy work environment is essential to support
knowledge-based work. More than ever, economic success depends on
creating healthy workplaces.
Stress research shows that a healthy job is mentally
challenging, skilled and enables decision-making. Assembly-line
jobs were stressful because they lacked these features;
knowledge-based jobs should be healthy because they provide all
Yet, the problem for growing numbers of knowledge workers --
professionals, managers, administrators and technicians -- is that
there's too much of a good thing. Their workloads and performance
expectations are out of control. Rising unemployment in the 1990s
fuelled predictions of "the end of work." But the opposite
happened. Many knowledge workers entered the new millennium feeling
they had more work than they could handle.
A stressful culture of overwork has emerged from constant
organizational change, dependence on information technology and the
demands of a non-stop global economy. Today's lean workplace has
rewritten the employment contract: Nothing less than 110-per-cent
effort is good enough. This work intensification most directly
affects knowledge workers who drive the postindustrial
While about one in eight workers log 50 or more hours weekly,
according to Statistics Canada, close to two in five senior
managers work these long hours. A national survey by Canadian
Policy Research Networks and Ekos Research Associates found that at
least one in five managers and professionals often or always had
difficulty keeping up with their workload. Furthermore, knowledge
workers were more likely than others to report that their job is
These trends are not uniquely Canadian. U.S. scholar Richard
Florida argues that the "creative class" of knowledge workers,
comprising 30 per cent of the U.S. work force, is more likely than
other groups of workers to feel rushed, time-impoverished and
stressed. Enjoying flexibility in work schedules and locations
unheard of in the industrial era comes at a price. Because the
creative class greatly values their time, they are always wired
into work. In Britain, findings from the 2001 skills survey,
conducted by a research team at the universities of Oxford and
Warwick, discovered rising job skills -- an essential ingredient of
a knowledge economy -- were directly associated with increased
My work with many private and public sector knowledge-based
organizations across Canada shows that this work intensification is
unsustainable. The resulting stress is not only unhealthy for
employees; it also is dysfunctional for organizations.
Consider the following: A manager of a professional unit
discovered in a succession planning meeting that nobody on the team
wanted her job because it's seen as guaranteed burnout. In another
firm that offers generous vacation days, key managers and
professionals are not expected to take these -- raising concerns
about scaring off potential recruits. When a senior manager in
another organization spoke out about his desire for a healthier
work-life balance, this became a career-limiting move and quickly
stifled discussions about solutions. A public sector organization
employing mainly professionals saw prescription drug benefit costs
jump -- especially for antidepressants, sedatives and related
medications that treat symptoms of stress -- during a period of
budget cuts and rising workloads.
At numerous conferences and workshops, a major issue raised by
professionals and managers is how high-pressure workplaces
discourage innovation -- finding new and better ways to do things
-- simply because there is so little time for reflection and shared
Research by Statistics Canada makes a similar point: Nationally,
the major reason workers do not participate in job-related training
is a lack of time. Furthermore, time pressures also inhibit
coaching and mentoring, activities that organizations will
increasingly rely on to transfer their intellectual capital to new
A stress-impaired work force means higher employer and public
health care costs. To understand how this happens, we need to look
beyond the usual indicators of a healthy workplace, such as
absenteeism. For example, in two service organizations I surveyed,
stressed-out professionals had very low rates of absenteeism.
That's because they came to work even when ill.
This "presenteeism" problem could undermine productivity in
knowledge-based organizations. Workers show up, but don't fully
function. If it's the flu or a cold that ails them, the health of
an entire work group will be at risk. The cumulative impact of
presenteeism is rising long-term disability claims and serious
We've known for years that psychologically healthy jobs increase
life expectancy, reduce the chances of depression or exhaustion and
reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
More research will shed light on how healthy jobs and workplaces
also contribute to knowledge creation and use. Still, we know
enough to take action. As a start, employers should heed the advice
of Peter Drucker, perhaps the leading management thinker
Mr. Drucker articulates the growing realization that knowledge
workers must be treated as assets. He calls for a new approach to
people management that enables continuous innovation, learning and
teaching throughout the workday. As part of this new approach,
employers can tap knowledge workers' creativity by directly
involving them in diagnosing stress-related problems in their
Strategies for reducing the intensity of work must provide
breathing space for imagination to flourish:
-Cut out reports that have no real value to the organization.
-Be serious about priority setting for projects and tasks.
-Reward managers who support employees to achieve their personal and career needs.
-Most of all, openly discuss what's right about the work environment and what needs fixing.
For years, we thought that good health arose from a successful
economy. But we had it backward: Prosperity depends on a healthy
work force. So we must create truly healthy organizations that
deliver the results desired by managers, investors and employees.
This winning formula closely links innovation, financial success
and employee well being.
About the Author
Graham Lowe, PhD, is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta who specializes in the study of work. His research and publications examine job quality, employment trends, the future of work, employment-related public policy, human resource development and management, organizational innovation and performance, school-work transitions, and unions. Graham also has been a visiting professor, lecturer and researcher at numerous universities in Canada, Europe, and Asia. As well, he has extensive consulting experience, has given hundreds of conference talks and workshops to practitioners and policy makers, and is a frequent media commentator on workplace and labour market issues. Contact Graham by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and visit: www.arts.ualberta.ca/glowe for additional information.
Anton Hart wrote:
Posted 2010/11/16 at 03:52 PM EST
Submitted to the publisher requesting anonymity:
"Presenteeism in your latest e-letter is worse when you work in a hospital at least in my job working in a physician's office. I have come to work often when sick and no one ever comments that I should go home. When I do stay home eyebrows seem to be raised and I feel guilty. That could just be me though. I have a strong work ethic and feel that I am malingering if I stay home with a headache and sniffles yet that is when you're most contagious. We don't get replaced if we are sick and when we return to the job we have to work overtime to make up for the work that piled up during our absence. Some of us could work at home during a mild but contagious illness but it has never been offered. During the G20 summit we were ordered to be at work sick or not and we were not allowed to take a vacation day. As it turned out I had a terrible flu. I dragged myself to work and presented myself to my manager's office and asked if they wanted me to stay. They got the message but it was pretty ridiculous that I had to present myself to get paid. Anyway, health care workers have not gotten the message that they should stay home if they are sick except during very public flu outbreaks.
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