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Work & family in the '90s: a fairy tale turned nightmare.

It was a fairy tale. A generation ago, wide-eyed baby boomers, still in their adolescence, were told stories about how, when they grew up, automation would result in more leisure time, more prosperity. Machines would set people free. The future was rosy. It was a fairy tale.

"Not so," says Linda Duxbury, a Carleton University (Ottawa) business professor whose research is painting a disturbing picture of life in the '90s. Duxbury, along with Christopher Higgins at the University of Western Ontario, is involved in a study of nearly 30,000 working Canadians. Behind the numbers are real people, living real lives that are anything but fairy tales.

"About two-thirds of working mothers and nearly half of working fathers are experiencing very high levels of stress," says Duxbury. "People are spending more and more time at work, often out of fear. A lot of organizations are telling their workers that if they can't cope, there are thousands of unemployed people who would jump at their jobs. It's no longer legitimate to complain. It's no longer legitimate to say you're having difficulty. In many organizations, it's no longer legitimate to say 'no' to additional work - even if you're not getting paid for it."

When Duxbury and her research colleagues ask people what they are doing to cope, most say they simply work harder and rely on their families for help.

"One gentleman told me he always thought he could be fired from work, but not from his family," recalls Duxbury. "Now, he's separated. People are pushing their families to the limit, and eventually, something has to give."

Duxbury says 16 percent of the workers in her survey are working more than 60 hours a week. Among professionals, 42 percent are working well in excess of the traditional 40-hour week. But the people who are having the toughest time are those in lower-level jobs.

"Money may not be able to buy you happiness," says Duxbury, "but it can help you cope by allowing you to buy things that give you more time. The people in lower-level jobs don't have that kind of luxury. They earn less money. They have no job security. They have little flexibility in their jobs. They're the people who are really, really stressed."

There are consequences, of course. Increased stress-related absenteeism. Burnout. Family problems.

"A lot of managers think there's a direct correlation between the number of hours a person works and productivity. According to their way of thinking, the person who works 60 hours a week is twice as productive as somebody who works 30 hours a week. That's just bunk," counters Duxbury. "Beyond a certain point, and that point varies from person to person, the more time you put into work, the less efficient you become. You become prone to error, less able to concentrate. And let's face it, people who are tired all the time aren't very creative. When you have a huge backlog of work sitting in front of you, you don't have time to think."

Duxbury's research shows that, when it comes to helping employees cope with stress, managers' attitudes are more important than company policy. She says a lot of business research focuses on attitudes - what people think and believe. As she puts it, "We don't care what companies think. Quite often, company policies look good. They say the right things. But it's what they do that counts. It all comes down to the boss."

According to Duxbury, people who work for understanding managers are more likely to be committed to the organization. They're also more likely to communicate their concerns and are able to work longer hours with less stress.

"If you have a supportive manager who communicates with you, who mentors you, who coaches you, helps you to develop and gives you the kind of flexibility you need to get on with your life, then you're likely to be committed to the organization," she says. "If you work for a jerk, it's just the opposite."

Duxbury uses her research findings to support the claim. Her study shows that only about three percent of employees with non-supportive bosses actually trust their managers. Less than a third provide upward feedback - oftentimes because they don't dare. And they're more than twice as likely to be absent from the work place than employees whose managers are supportive.

Duxbury has been sharing her research findings with the Canadian Federal Department of Human Resources Management and with a number of private-sector organizations. She also does a lot of public speaking, primarily to business audiences. But is anyone listening?

"To get through to most organizations, you have to draw a link between productivity and how you treat your employees," she explains. "The more enlightened organizations are doing some very innovative things. They've finally realized that employees are critical. If you want to have a fast-moving organization that's capable of keeping pace with change, you need a committed work force that's willing to tell you what's working and what isn't. That's not likely to happen if your employees don't trust you or if they're too stressed-out to think about how things could be done better."

Duxbury says her research is intended to have real-world applications - by changing the way business goes about its business. But she's also brought her work home with her, changing the way she and her husband John Chinneck, a Carleton engineering professor, organize their own lives at home.

"We have a number of rules in our family," she explains. "From the minute our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter comes home from school until she goes to bed, John and I don't do any work. There's so much to do, and so little time to do it, that it's just too easy to put family life at risk. Instead, I usually end up feeling guilty," she laughs.

Like most professors at Carleton, Duxbury and her husband spend about 50 hours a week on their university work. "Because we're university professors, John and I have something that most Canadian workers don't," says Duxbury. "That's flexibility. We have a lot more say about when and where we do our work, and that makes a tremendous difference in our ability to cope with family and other things that really matter to us."

And what about the thousands of Canadians who don't have that flexibility? Will this not-so-fairy-tale-like story have a happy ending?

"It's a depressing picture," says Duxbury. "Organizations are cutting back on the number of employees, but they're certainly not cutting back on the amount of work that needs to be done. It's unrealistic and it's creating a false impression. They're looking at their inputs and outputs and thinking they're increasing productivity. And they're doing so on the backs of their employees. I think that if things don't change soon, we're going to see a significant portion of workers unable to work because their health just won't be able to take the stress anymore."

If Duxbury is right, that's certainly no fairy tale.

This article first appeared in the Winter 1995 edition of Carleton University Magazine.

Mark Giberson is a communication consultant with The Giberson Group in Ottawa.
COPYRIGHT 1996 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Giberson, Mark
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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