All work, no play, no more

Cathy Gulli | Jun 15, 2006

What happens when a company orders its workers to slow down

When Montreal-based Alcan Inc. was in the throes of acquiring one of its main rivals in 2003, employees at the world’s second-largest aluminum producer were burning out. “Schedules were completely out of whack. People were working seven-day weeks, 13 or 14 hours a day. There was no respite coming from the top down, and employees were afraid to speak up,” recalls spokesperson Alex Christen. But with 65,000 workers spread across 59 countries and regions, Alcan had reason to worry: global employee surveys revealed staff were grossly overworked, and turnover rates were swelling, especially in the all-important finance departments. Then, in a stroke of corporate enlightenment, Alcan began implementing a “work-life effectiveness strategy” — complete with coaching for top executives, mandatory no-work hours, and on-site massage sessions. “It’s not about making employees work harder and longer, it’s about making them work more effectively,” explains Christen.

It’s a radical change in corporate thinking for a company focused on the bottom line to conclude that employee burnout is a bigger long-term threat to business than the short-term cost of encouraging staff to slow down. It may also stem from a growing sense of discontent about the ever-expanding workday throughout the corporate world. More than half of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 44 report that they haven’t struck a satisfying balance between work and personal life, according to a 2003 Environics survey. What’s more, one in six people say they work at high speed “all the time,” and one in four worked more than 50 hours a week in 2001 — up from one in 10 a decade earlier. “It’s dangerous and unhealthy to work so hard,” warns Nina Spencer, a Toronto-based motivational speaker and author of Getting Passion Out of Your Profession. “We neglect our primary relationships. And we get so far down the path of being a job that we forget that we exist in humanity.”

The reason we get so caught up is simple: “It has become difficult for Canadian employees to meet work expectations during regular hours,” noted a Health Canada national study on work-life conflict. Blame corporate downsizing, connectivity technology including email, and global competition across time zones that has all but eradicated the traditional 9 to 5. People stay at the office longer and later, only to take work home with them at the end of the day and on weekends. The irony is that the excess hours don’t necessarily translate into productivity or positive results; as Health Canada wrote, “the link between work-life conflict, burnout and physical and mental health problems suggest that these workloads are not sustainable over the long term.”

That’s what Alcan realized in 2003, when tired and fed-up managers in the company’s primary metal business group pushed for a full-time human resources agent to develop a balance strategy. An eight-month pilot program was launched, and that has become the basis for the work-life effectiveness plan being implemented throughout the company. Top executives, supervisors and managers now have regular sessions with balance experts on how to be better role models for staff. No-work weekends have become the rule, out-of-office lunch breaks are encouraged, and employees are urged to focus on “essential” rather than “important” tasks each day to avoid working late. Plus, activities such as tai chi and fitness classes, and relaxation services including massages, are offered at work.

Christen says the program is meant to be a structured change in mindset, and that staff and supervisors decide for themselves how to achieve balance. As Spencer explains, striking the right work-life ratio is a personal process — one that changes with financial or family needs. “For the most part, we only swing through balance on the way to imbalance,” says Spencer. “It’s like a pendulum that will swing your whole life. But as long as you keep the goal of work-life balance, you won’t swing too far.”

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