Work-Life Discord off the Scales
For longer than she cares to remember, Cindy Warkentin felt like she was on a merry-go-round with no way off. Every morning, she'd head to North Vancouver's Lions Gate Hospital to visit her terminally ill mother-in-law. Then she'd rush to her job as medical-office assistant, where she'd work until at least 6 p.m., often skipping her breaks. After another stop at the hospital, she'd go home to make dinner for her husband, three kids, and father-in-law, who was in the beginning stages of dementia. She'd make one last trip to the hospital before pulling into her driveway around 9 or 9:30 p.m., at which time she'd fall into bed like a stone. Warkentin's husband, once a tight end with the Calgary Stampeders, helped out as much as he could, but had been diagnosed years earlier with one of the most progressive forms of multiple sclerosis.
Warkentin was so busy taking care of everyone else's needs that she stopped taking care of her own. It took a heartfelt warning from her family doctor to get her to wrench back some control and put the brakes on her runaway schedule.
She is part of a growing segment of the population called the "sandwich generation", a group of men and women struggling to meet the demands of their children and their aging parents. A September 2004 Statistics Canada report, which puts their numbers at 712,000 in 2002, warns that those ranks will swell dramatically over the next two decades as baby boomers become seniors.
Members of the sandwich generation aren't the only ones feeling overloaded. Despite the apparently enlightened corporate speak of the 1990s about the value of contented employees to the bottom line, escalating numbers of Canadians are struggling to juggle job, family, and social lives. Downsizing, restructuring, and galloping technological change have just made matters worse. Even those without dependants are working more and playing less, with their discretionary time dwindling to increasingly wispy proportions.
That's life in the techno-charged, hyperactive new millennium, some might say, but if that's the case, life in this century is making people sick--and costing companies an estimated $4.5 billion to $10 billion a year in absenteeism and decreased production, according to a 2001 Health Canada study on work-life balance.
The survey, entitled Work-Life Conflict in Canada in the New Millennium--involving 31,571 employees of medium to large Canadian organizations (consisting of 500 to 1,000-plus people)--reported that in 1991, one in 10 respondents worked 50 or more hours each week, compared to one in four a decade later. In 2001, 58 percent said they felt overloaded, that they didn't have the time and energy to complete their tasks adequately or comfortably, an increase of 11 percent since 1991. Worse, in 2001, one in three claimed to be burned out or depressed, and nearly one in five rated his or her physical health as fair or poor. Half of them said they missed work three or more days in a six-month period because of ill health or due to emotional, physical, or mental fatigue. That was double the number from a decade earlier.
Unfortunately, not everybody has a family doctor like Warkentin's to alert them to potentially dangerous situations of overload. And when it comes to our own self-care, "common sense is not common," according to Paula Cayley, the president and CEO of Interlock, a Vancouver-based nonprofit organization that develops and implements employee-wellness programs. In a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight (which is an Interlock client), Cayley said she believes that employers have a responsibility to try and accommodate the diverse needs of employees, but that individuals must bear some of the burden for their own well-being. "People have a hard time putting themselves on their list of things to do, but in the end we are all responsible for the way we respond to stressful situations, and there are things we can do to increase our sense of control," she explained.
That doesn't have to mean drastic action, such as changing jobs or taking leave. Learning to say no is a good place to start.
Jeff Christian, a partner with Vancouver-based law firm Lawson Lundell and a father of two young children, knows the value of setting boundaries. "I'm zealous about protecting my time; I never agree lightly to change my schedule," Christian said in an interview from his downtown office. And although he works about 55 hours a week and teaches a course at UBC, he also plays hockey and gets a solid seven hours' sleep each night. Of course, he's not living in Toronto or New York, where the pressure to work even longer hours is off the scale. Compared to his professional friends in both cities, who are working at least 70 or 80 hours a week, Christian's life, although full, seems blissfully balanced.
Warkentin, though her circumstances were clearly more extreme, had no such instinct for setting boundaries. "My situation definitely had something to do with my personality. I'm driven, and I don't like to say no," Warkentin told the Straight. She added that when her schedule was at its fullest, she lost sight of the fact that little things can make a difference: eating properly, making sleep a priority, and exercising, even for 15 minutes a day.
They may sound simplistic, but such small steps eventually helped. After a year of working out for half an hour at a time at a women's fitness club three days each week, Warkentin is enjoying a newfound stamina. "I really like whipping up flights of stairs without getting winded," she said. "I also made a conscious decision not to have e-mail at home, and we found a gardener we could afford."
Cayley agrees that positive change can come in tiny increments. "It's what we do every day that counts," she said. "It's about taking a moment, a deep breath, and really seeing what's going on around you. It's not about saving up for that big holiday once a year or holding your breath until the weekend." Cayley suggested booking time in the schedule for individual, family, and couple activities, the same way you would mark a business meeting down in your DayTimer. She also recommends simplifying life as much as possible: get rid of clutter, hire a house cleaner or someone to do the yard work once in a while, and have a potluck dinner when you want to have friends over instead of putting on an elaborate five-course meal.
More difficult to pull off, perhaps, are the necessary shifts in attitude, the shift from a stiff-upper-lip approach to life, the kind our grandparents endorsed, to one that says it's okay, even healthy, to ask for help. "You can't let the pressure build out of fear of being perceived as weak," Cayley said. "Enlist support. Identify people in your social network, your community, and at work that you can go to for help when you need it."
If the statistics are anything to go by, it's only a matter of time before you'll be returning the favour.