© Copyright 2006 Rogers Publishing Ltd. The following article first appeared in the July 2005 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.
Workable Solutions
Now, more than ever, stress in the workplace is becoming a greater concern to employers. BENEFITS CANADA’s first stress report shows what companies can do to ease the pressure facing their employees.
By Paula Allen

If you’re feeling more stressed than ever trying to balance career and family demands, you’re not alone. According to a 2003 Health Canada study, Canadian workers are finding it increasingly difficult to juggle work responsibilities and personal demands. The study, Work-Life Conflict in Canada in the New Millennium, by Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and Chris Higgins, a professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., found that work-life conflict has become worse over the past decade.

“Organizations are not looking at the impact of worklife conflict,” says Duxbury. “Over the past 15 years, companies have been cutting jobs to save money, but they’re not considering the long-term costs of being too lean and too mean: increased health benefit costs, increased absenteeism, increased employee assistance program usage and increasing employee disengagement.”

Work-life balance has become the corporate mantra of the early 21st century. But what are Canadian companies actually doing to reduce work stress and help employees maintain work-life balance?

Not enough, says Duxbury. “Merely putting some policies in place is not going to cut it,” she says. “They’re bandaid solutions. Companies must change their culture.”

The following ten steps can help that happen:

In terms of environment, it’s important for organizations to understand what motivates their employees and what values the company supports. For example, an older, mostly female workforce will not be interested in sports programs. At the same time, any new program must conform to the organization’s values. If they conflict, the company—and management—may be viewed as hypocritical and could create more damage than good. “It’s more than benefits, it’s the meaning in life,” says Andrew Benedek, chairman of the board, chief executive officer and the founder of ZENON Environmental Inc., a company that develops water quality solutions. “The people working here are committed to making a difference in the world. They’re committed to the environment so we’ve created a working environment conducive to professional as well as personal growth and development.”

The ZENON head office in Oakville, Ont., was designed to allow as much natural light in as possible and is surrounded by 52 acres of forested land with natural ponds and eight kilometres of hiking and walking trails. Employees have access to a fitness coordinator and gym facility.

American Express Canada’s Markham, Ont. head office also has an on-site, staffed fitness centre that offers various classes during the day. Massage and physiotherapy are on site once a week and a dry cleaners, card and gift store are in the complex.

Employees face numerous challenges on the homefront that can interfere with normal working hours. According to the Duxbury-Higgins report, employees with high role overload are, compared to the counterparts with low levels of overload:
• 5.6 times more likely to report high levels of stress;
• 3.5 times more likely to have high levels of absenteeism due to emotional, physical or mental fatigue;
• 2.3 times more likely to report high intent to turnover;
• 1.6 times more likely to have high levels of absenteeism, all factors considered, and to miss three or more days of work in a six-month period due to ill health; and
• 2.8 times more likely to miss work due to child care problems.

Flexible work arrangements, such as flexible work hours, job sharing and allowing an employee to work from home on occasion, not only benefit employees and their families, but the organization. American Express employees, for example, can work flex hours to accommodate the demands of their personal lives, such as picking up children from day care. “Creating an environment that attracts, retains and develops skilled employees is just good business sense,” says Tara Peever, Public Affairs and Communications at American Express. “It gives us an edge in the service sector if we have engaged, motivated, long-term employees.”

A healthy work environment at Intuit Canada Ltd., a developer of e-finance solutions, including accounting and tax preparation software based in Edmonton, means plenty of facilities to let employees blow off steam and take time out. There is a staff lounge with games, a gas fireplace and big screen TV. Its offices also include an outdoor patio and a fully-equipped gym.

“Our business is cyclical and during tax season our people often have to work long hours to meet firm deadlines, so we’ve tried to make the work environment as flexible and as enjoyable as possible” says Glen McGillivray, manager of human resources at Intuit. “If our employees are happy and engaged they’ll produce better products for our customers.”

Employee fitness levels have a direct correlation to organizational absentee rates, many studies have found. And they can positively impact benefits costs. SAS Canada(see “SAS…not SOS,” page 18)certainly embraces that belief. It has on-site fitness facilities and subsidizes memberships to off-site gyms, going one step further.

“If an employee doesn’t have time to go to a gym and wants to work out at home, SAS will contribute up to $1,000 towards the purchase of home fitness equipment,” says Seta Kouyoumadjian, director of human resources at SAS in Toronto. “This way, the employee can spend time at home and the whole family benefits.”

Metro Toronto municipal employees are also reaping the rewards of their new initiative. They missed work 3.35 fewer days in the first six months of their “Metro-fit” fitness program—designed to reduce job-related injuries and absenteeism—than employees not enrolled in the program.

Different people have different work-life stresses. And many face difficulties in starting—and raising—a family due to work constraints. As a result, flexibility around parental benefits can ease these challenges.

According to the Duxbury-Higgins report, women still shoulder most of the childcare responsibilities. The same holds true for eldercare.

VanCity, Canada’s largest credit union, has a different demographic than most firms. Of its 1,500 employees, between 75% and 80% are women. It addressed this situation with programs aimed to reduce the stress of juggling work and parenthood. “We realized that when the babysitter doesn’t show up, or a child is ill, our employees were often forced to lie so they could stay home with their child,” says Rose Webber, VanCity’s Health and Wellness Team Leader based in Vancouver. “This was unacceptable to us, so we introduced care days.” Every VanCity employee has one care day a month that can be used to care for children, elders or themselves. VanCity also accommodates parents in other ways with flexible working hours, job sharing, emergency childcare and leaves of absence.

“A high level of trust and commitment is essential to business success,” says Graham Lowe, professor of sociology at the University of Alberta and president of The Graham Lowe Group Inc., a work consulting firm. “You must nurture a culture that values the human side of the business.”

At Intuit, this means no formal work hours and no set number of sick days. “These are professionals and can manage their own time,” says McGillivray. “So if they want to go to the gym during the day or play some video games in the lounge, or even take a power nap, that’s their business. We focus on output. We realize that people, when they’re working hard, need breaks to recharge and refocus.” Intuit has found that by allowing employees to set their own schedules, productivity and worker engagement has increased.

“When a company is commited to its employees, its employees will be committed to the company,” says McGillivray. “We’ve found that our employees don’t abuse the fact that they can set their own hours and take breaks to play video games. In fact, they work harder.”

Needs are often a moving target. And plan sponsors shouldn’t give up if a program that has been put in place doesn’t show immediate results. “Don’t be afraid of a program failing. Keep trying until you get it right,” says VanCity’s Webber. “It’s the small things that often make a huge difference in an employee’s life—like flexible working hours.”

SAS is constantly seeking ways to improve its workplace. “We try to do one major thing each year to enhance our benefits,” says Kouyoumadjian.

Employees can effectively identify what organizational changes or cultural shifts need to be made for a workplace to become user-friendly.

American Express, like many other companies, regularly surveys its employees and asks for suggestions on ways to improve the working environment.

SAS discovered through its discussions with employees that community and charitable involvement was important. Therefore, it gave employees one paid day a quarter to do volunteer work. The company also matches any charitable donation an employee makes to a non-religious or non-political party.

Corporate philanthropy is not only good for the company’s bottom line, increasing sales and name brand recognition through marketing and advertising, it also instills consumer confidence and builds employee morale, loyalty and productivity through donations to favored community programs and provides options for employee volunteerism. According to a study by RainmakerThinking, Inc., a U.S. research and consulting firm, the top three job requirements for younger workers are:
• meaningful work that makes a difference to the world;
• working with committed co-workers who share their values, and;
• meeting their personal goals.

Company-led altruism can help meet those needs. One popular initiative that American Express discovered through its employee surveys is its paid sabbatical program, whereby long-time employees can work full time for a charity, with full pay, for up to six months. “They come back to AmEx re-energized and with new skills,” says Peever. “The sabbaticals benefit everyone involved—the charity, the individual, the community and AmEx.”

Just as senior management must buy into any organizational change, so must the workforce in general. And there are many obstacles. Graham Lowe and other workplace experts talk about the ‘silent killers’ of any strategy implementation that lurk below the surface in the culture and implementation of organizational life. They include:
• poor communication;
• poor coordination across the company;
• ineffective leadership;
• lack of trust and engagement;
• conflicting priorities.

The first step in improving any workplace is facing and defeating these silent killers. “Trust and commitment are key ingredients of a healthy work environment. The key to positive change is a high level of employee involvement in actually shaping the change,” adds Lowe. “This is real empowerment, and it defines a psychologically healthy workplace.”

At ZENON, management consults an employee “parliament” made up of people from all divisions of the company about all employee-centered initiatives. Other companies, like Intuit, not only seek employee input, they enact good ideas. “We talk to our employees and find out what works for them,” says McGillivray. “Good ideas should come from the bottom up.”

Lowe agrees with Duxbury that creating and sustaining healthy workplaces doesn’t happen by simply launching new programs. “It requires transforming how the organization operates,” he says. “The executive team must understand the links between healthy work environments, healthy workers, and healthy business results.”

Lowe advises that getting senior members of staff to change their way of thinking is easier when they’re presented with hard data. “Mining your own data can help them see these links and talk about them in language that makes sense to them,” he says. “The executive team needs a vision of what a healthy workplace looks and feels like within the organization and must make a long-term commitment to this vision, weaving healthy workplace goals and processes into all business plans.”

And if they don’t? “Organizations that lack the capacity to change won’t survive,” says Lowe.

Paula Allen is the business leader for health and human resource support services with FGIworld, in Markham, Ont. pallen@fgiworld.com