The Overloaded Work Life of Canadians

June 4, 2012

Interview with Researcher Linda Duxbury

The ATA Magazine Interview

On March 30, 2012, Shelley Magnusson, ATA executive staff officer, Government, interviewed Canadian researcher Linda Duxbury about the 2011 National Work–Life Balance Study in which Alberta teachers participated. The following question-and-answer format is based on notes from that interview and is not a verbatim transcript.

ATA Magazine: In your National Work–Life Balance Study, you identified work intensification and role overload as major problems facing Canadians. In your studies since, are these problems worsening, improving or staying the same?

Duxbury said that work intensification and role overload among Canadian workers are increasing. Why is this? First, employees are doing more with less. After more than a decade of trimming the so-called fat, there is no fat left to trim. All the efficiencies that could be made were found long ago. Yet the Conservative government of Stephen Harper announced in its budget (March 29, 2012) that the government will achieve ongoing savings of $5.2 billion by enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations, programs and services. The government announced that 19,200 public sector jobs will be cut over the next three years. Duxbury warned that cuts to the public service will reduce the level of service provided to the public.

Second, change is constant in most workplaces. Again using the example of the public service, Duxbury said that if more than 19,000 employees lose their jobs, it only makes sense that the remaining employees will shoulder the work once performed by employees whose positions have been cut. Many employees whose positions aren’t cut will experience survivor guilt, which, combined with taking on new responsibilities, could contribute to employee burnout. Duxbury warns that work intensification and overload are the biggest predictors of stress and depression and can result in increased absenteeism.

Employees who care about their work and about other people experience high rates of work intensification, she said. For example, police officers, nurses and teachers are more likely to suffer from burnout than are people in other professions. Duxbury pointed to the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s The New Work of Teaching: A Case Study of the Worklife of Calgary Public Teachers, which found that teachers consistently worked 50–55 hours per week. If these results are borne out by the larger study of Alberta teachers, the profession could be in serious trouble from work intensification and overload, she warned. (The New Work of Teaching is available on the ATA website: www.teachers.ab.ca.)

The third and most pervasive factor in work intensification is the creeping nature of technology. A blurring of personal time and work time is occurring as more employees check their e-mails in the evening, on weekends and while on vacation. This phenomenon afflicts parents as well, for parents who experience stress from being reachable 24/7 by their employers are passing that same expectation on to teachers. However, the major difference is that teachers are accountable to 25 or more parents, not just one manager.

ATA Magazine: Professional organizations have enacted programs to attract more women to their professions. The teaching profession appears to have the opposite problem, as approximately 75 per cent of teachers are female. Do you see gender imbalance continuing to be a problem?

Duxbury does not see gender imbalance as a problem so much as a challenge. School boards need to manage a female-dominated workforce differently. The majority of caregivers for young children and elderly parents are women. As the population ages, eldercare will become an even more important issue. This means that employers will increasingly have to accommodate employees through flexible time and provide them with resources and support.

Another issue related to gender imbalance is that already many young men are eschewing postsecondary studies. And as Alberta’s oil and gas industry heats up again, it is likely that even more young men will not complete high school or undertake postsecondary education. This will have a significant impact on the future composition of the teaching profession in Alberta.

ATA Magazine: Alberta labour market studies are predicting a significant shortage of professional engineers and tradespeople in the next decade. What influence, if any, will this have on the teaching profession? Is this an Alberta anomaly?

Duxbury said this is definitely an Alberta anomaly, as Alberta is the only province experiencing an increase in population. As more young people move to Alberta to fill the predicted labour shortage in the oil and gas industry, the need for additional teachers to meet population demands will increase. However, this will create a challenge for many school boards, for not only will boards need to find ways to retain experienced teachers to meet the influx of students but they will also need to ensure that their policies and practices will entice young people to the profession.

From the research, Duxbury said it is clear that future teachers will expect better working and learning conditions and will likely demand greater autonomy over their professional practice.

ATA Magazine: What do you predict will be the most serious challenge facing the teaching profession over the next five to ten years?

Duxbury said the challenges facing the profession today will be similar in five to ten years’ time. The predicted labour shortage, which will result in increased immigration, combined with an increase in Alberta birth rates, could result in an extra 100,000 students entering the Alberta school system over the next decade. The question is: Who will be left to teach them? Now is the time for school boards to review what their policies and practices say about their priorities. Duxbury advises school boards to ask the following questions: Do we value the professional work of teachers? Do we allow flexibility for teachers to deal with aging parents and young children? How will we attract young people to the teaching profession?

In turn, educators need to ask themselves: How has technology changed the way we teach? Is this a good change or not? Have we lost sight of the relational space in which real learning takes place? What should learning look like? 

In the years to come, the conditions of professional practice and personal demands placed on teachers and all professionals will influence their ability to balance their work and family lives.

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Dr. Linda Duxbury is a renowned researcher, writer and speaker on work–life balance. She has influenced policy and attitudes to help create supportive work environments in the private and public sectors. Duxbury is a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Ontario.