This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 31, 1999
Caroline Armstrong is, in her own words, "an extremely organized person" - some might consider her a bit obsessive. Call it what you will, her attention to detail served her well during a 19-year career in customer service with Canadian Airlines. For most of that time, Armstrong loved her job, loved helping people, which is why her decision to take early retirement this month comes as something of a surprise. "Honestly, I was burned out," admits the 55-year-old Torontonian. The airline's uncertain financial future was hard on staff morale, but what really got to her was the pressure of handling ticket inquiries and complaints from passengers on the airline's busy shuttle flights between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. "People on those routes always show up at the last minute and they don't travel on the flights they booked - they're either early or they're late - so it's very stressful. And with the computer doing a lot of the work, I sometimes felt I wasn't much more than a cashier at a supermarket. I'd lost my sense of purpose."
This week, Armstrong starts a new career as a consultant helping busy professionals organize their offices and personal schedules. For the first time in years, she's looking forward to going to work, not because the pay will be any better - she'll actually be earning less, without any guarantee of steady work - but because, finally, "if I do my job well, I can make a real difference."
A sense of purpose, a chance to make a difference, a belief that what we do matters - the phrases are familiar to anyone who studies workplace issues. How we feel about our jobs, experts say, often has little to do with the position itself or how much it pays, although both are undeniably important. When it comes right down to it, most people want to feel challenged in their work; they crave the satisfaction that comes from making an impact, however insignificant it might seem to others. The worst job? That's easy: it's the one where the boss treats you like an idiot, the customers shower you with complaints and opportunities for personal growth and development are non-existent.
Actually, there are all sorts of bad jobs, just as there are all sorts of jobs that people love in spite of the daily frustrations and annoyances. Most of the time, though, our jobs seem to fall somewhere in between: we are proud of our employer's products or services, intend to stay with the organization for several years and believe we are fairly paid - yet we sometimes feel burned out and would probably jump ship if offered a similar job elsewhere for even a minor increase in pay.
Those, at least, are some of the major findings of an exclusive survey of 2,000 Canadian men and women provided to Maclean's by Aon Consulting Inc., an international human resources consulting firm with offices in Canada, the United States and 58 other countries. The survey, conducted this spring and sponsored in part by the Royal Bank, explored a wide array of work-related issues, from employees' feelings about job security, pay levels and stress, to their views on the balance between work and personal life, the quality of managerial talent in their organization and whether their skills are keeping up with the demands of an increasingly complex and fast-paced economy. (To take part in the survey, respondents had to be 18 or older, working at least 20 hours a week outside the home for an organization with at least 20 employees. The national results are considered accurate to within five percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
Overall, says David Stum, a senior vice-president of Aon Consulting, the research shows Canadians are committed to their employers and are willing to work hard, but will do so only if they feel the organization values them as much as it cares about customers and shareholders. "The average Canadian worker is not disgruntled and not angry," says Stum, who supervised the study. "They're hopeful that if they make a big contribution to the company, the company will recognize it."
One indication of attitudes about work were responses to the question whether people would switch employers if given the chance. Nationally, 69 per cent of the respondents say they intend to stay with their organization "for several years." Only 13 per cent definitely intend to leave their current employer; the rest are undecided.
On the surface, that might seem like evidence of an overwhelmingly satisfied workforce. But the responses to several other questions point to an underlying mood of ambivalence, and in some cases outright discontent. Only 47 per cent of the sample say they would recommend their company as "one of the best places to work in the community," and only 43 per cent say they would definitely remain with their current employer if another organization offered them "a similar job with slightly higher pay." (When Aon asked a representative sample of Americans those same questions earlier this year, 54 per cent said their company was one of the best places to work, and 49 per cent said they would stay with the company even if offered a slightly better-paying job elsewhere.) When the Canadian results are analyzed by industry, an interesting paradox appears: employees of high-tech companies are the most likely (56 per cent) to agree their organization is one of the best places to work, yet they are the least likely (33 per cent) to say they would remain with that company if offered a better-paying position elsewhere.
Respondents to the survey were also asked to estimate how much of a pay hike it would take to entice them from their present employer. Twenty-eight per cent would walk for an increase of 10 per cent or less, while another 34 per cent would switch employers for a raise of between 11 and 20 per cent. Stum believes the results underscore a problem for Canadian companies - one that will increase in importance as the economy strengthens and companies are forced to work harder to attract talented employees. "As the labour market tightens in Canada, organizations are going to find they're competing for the best employees," he says. "Companies that run short of particular skill sets are going to start playing steal-your-neighbour's-employee, which they can do because people are obviously very interested in improving their take-home pay. You already see that with the increase in cross-border recruiting by American companies."
Another sign of simmering discontent is the high level of stress in the workplace. More than one in three respondents (35 per cent) agree with the statement that "my job often is so stressful that I feel burned out," while 23 per cent feel that way sometimes. In contrast, only 16 per cent say they often feel burned out from stress in their personal lives.
The long hours many Canadians work almost certainly contribute to job-related stress: a third of those interviewed work more than 40 hours a week, while 10 per cent are on the job more than 50 hours a week. But the results suggest workers' susceptibility to burnout depends on the industry in which they work. Among those interviewed, employees who work in government, education and health care were significantly more likely (44 per cent) to say they often feel burned out, followed by workers in manufacturing and construction (35 per cent), service industries (33 per cent), and insurance and finance (32 per cent). Respondents who work in agriculture were least likely to feel burned out, at 15 per cent.
Government, health and education employees also feel hard-pressed. Only 51 per cent of them agree they "have the resources I need to do my job well," compared with a national average of 61 per cent. And only 61 per cent agree their organization "satisfies our customers' needs," compared with an average of 69 per cent among all respondents. Public sector workers were also less likely than the other survey participants to say their organization is one of the best places to work in the community - yet they were significantly more likely to indicate an intention to remain for several years.
The fact that many workers are feeling stressed and stretched, however, does not necessarily mean they dislike their jobs. To compare the attitudes of employees in various industries and job categories, Aon researchers created an index based on the answers to six survey questions measuring key aspects of job commitment. The results were then superimposed on a scale on which the average worker would score 100. Teachers and other educators emerged at the top of the range in terms of commitment, with a score of 106. Workers in nonprofit industries are close behind, at 105.3. (Aon's workforce commitment index deals with respondents' willingness to recommend their employers' products or services, their feelings about the organization as a place to work, the likelihood that they will stay with the employer for the next several years, and their views about the skill level and dedication of their fellow workers.)
Why, if they feel burdened by cutbacks and work-related stress, do teachers score highly in terms of job commitment? Mary Bailey, a Grade 3 teacher with 20 years' experience in Langley, B.C., is perhaps typical of those in her profession. Since she began teaching, Bailey says, "the demands have increased across the board." Yet when Bailey is asked if she likes her job, her answer is an unequivocal yes - and the reasons go far beyond the long summer vacations. "I guess it's because I believe you can make a difference with kids. It's nice to be able to motivate kids to learn and be good people."
Further down the scale, displaying lower-than-average levels of commitment, were workers in the retail and wholesale sector, transportation, food and beverages, and consumer products. Lowest of all, with a score of 87.8, were employees of the hospitality and entertainment industries, a category that includes hotel and restaurant staff, bartenders, theatre attendants and amusement park staff. Gregory Thomas, 24, an actor in Toronto who has worked at a variety of jobs in the service sector, says the problem often is not the position itself, but the way people in those industries are treated. "You're forced to do jobs sometimes that the rest of society looks down upon," he says. "People who are waiters, who work behind counters in stores, we think of them as lazy or assume that's all they want out of life."
One of Thomas's most humiliating experiences took place a year ago while he was working for minimum wage in a candy store crowded with children. When three customers jumped the queue, Thomas politely asked them to go to the back of the line. Two agreed but the third, a middle-aged woman, blew up. "She started swearing a blue streak, calling me every name in the book. It was humiliating. I'm thinking I'd love to reach over the counter and snap her neck, but I'm trying to set an example for the kids. You just have to grin and bear it."
In his job as a supervisor with the Calgary Parking Authority, Dave Noel, 51, also takes more than his share of abuse. The first thing he tells newly hired parking enforcement officers is that they have to be thick-skinned. "People love to go by, roll down their window - especially to the poor guys out doing meters - and give them the finger," he says. Although Noel has never been assaulted by an irate motorist, he knows of one officer who was beaten recently with a typewriter. "People don't understand that we provide a public service, we keep the traffic flowing. Somebody parks on a crosswalk or close to a school, and because of that some child gets run over - how do we feel as a public when that happens?" Noel adds: "The feeling that we're providing a public service outweighs the negative tenfold."
The same is true for a host of other public sector jobs in which the pay and working conditions are less than ideal. But it's not just teachers and nurses, to name two examples, for whom money and benefits are less important than intangible forms of reward. On average, says Stum, a person's level of pay is actually fourth on the list of considerations that affect his or her job commitment. By far the most influential factor, he says, is the balance between work and personal life, a sense that the company "respects and cares about me as a person" instead of treating its workers as cogs in a machine. Next in importance is whether the job offers opportunities for personal growth, followed by a conviction that the organization satisfies the needs of its customers or the public.
Those findings will come as little surprise to those whose job it is to attract and motivate employees. In the past few years, particularly in the United States as the unemployment rate has dropped to near four per cent (roughly half the Canadian rate), corporations of all sizes have been exploring ways to capture the hearts and minds of their employees short of handing out big pay increases. In the old days, managers typically didn't worry about such things. Bosses counted on subordinates to obey orders, in return for which workers could look forward to steady, long-term employment. But the command-and-control mentality came under assault in the Sixties and again during the two recessions at the beginning and end of the Eighties, when mass layoffs taught workers to trust no one and look after their own needs first.
Even if today's workers did have the option of lifetime employment, it's unlikely many would choose it. Younger Canadians especially value freedom and flexibility, which in the ideal world means switching jobs - sometimes even careers - several times during a working life. Similarly, many companies are looking to hire people with a broad range of professional or technical skills. "Twenty-five years ago, if I got a résumé across my desk from someone who'd worked at four or five companies I wouldn't even consider it, because it implied that person couldn't hold a job," says Michael McInerney, president of Toronto-based consulting firm Sibson Canada Inc. "Now, it's the reverse. If I see a résumé that shows someone working for one company for 25 years, I won't consider it because it means they don't have enough varied experience."
In all sorts of ways, companies are trying to adapt to the new Canadian worker. Human resource managers now speak of the "value proposition" between employer and employee, biz-speak for the notion that the relationship "must make sense for both parties," says Blair Pollard, the Royal Bank's manager of human resource planning. At McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd., managers organize quarterly focus groups with employees and conduct company-wide surveys twice a year to ensure that staff have an opportunity to air their views. "Employees today want to be more involved, they need a lot of two-way communication," explains vice-president Roy Ellis.
Bell Canada, which in the past four years has shed 16,000 workers - a third of its 1995 payroll - is also searching for ways to foster employee commitment through performance-based pay and increased communication between workers and managers. One recent measure was the introduction of $5,500 annual bonuses for technical employees who upgrade their skills. "What's different now is we see employee commitment as an integral part of providing service to the customer, which means more loyal customers and, hopefully, more profits," says Denis Coderre, Bell's vice-president of human resources.
Ah yes, the bottom line. Companies that make a point of listening to their employees and keeping them happy don't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because it's good for business. Judging by the large numbers of people who would switch jobs if given the opportunity, Canadian companies still have a long way to go. In fact, many employees aren't even sure the people to whom they report deserve to be in their jobs. Roughly half of those surveyed said their employers do a poor job of developing effective supervisors and managers, while only 17 per cent said their organizations exceed their expectations on that score. The implication is that many Canadians like their jobs in spite of their bosses - a clear sign managers have their work cut out for them. Maybe they, too, can make a difference.
DEDICATED TO THE JOB
The following table rates employees of selected industries based on their responses to six survey questions measuring job commitment. The questions dealt with respondents' willingness to recommend their organization as a place to work, the quality of its products or services, the likelihood that employees will stay in the job for several years, and the skill level and dedication of their fellow workers. Industries were then ranked on a scale in which the average was set at 100.
Miscellaneous services: 100.8
Health care: 100.5
Financial services/insurance: 100.3
Public service: 97.7
Food/beverages/consumer products: 94.1
The top five factors that affect job satisfaction and employee commitment in Canada, in order of importance:
1. Work/life balance
2. Opportunities for personal growth
3. Belief that the company satisfies customers' needs
4. Pay levels competitive with similar organizations
5. Belief that co-workers are keeping pace with the skills their jobs demand
WHEN BIG ISN'T BETTER
My organization satisfies our customers' needs (by workforce size, the percentage who agreed):
20 to 100 employees: 74.9
101 to 4,999 employees: 69.3
5,000 employees or more: 61.4
Compared with people in similar jobs within my organization, I believe I am fairly paid:
Somewhat agreed: 16%
Neither agreed nor disagreed: 2.1%
Somewhat disagreed: 6.8%
I believe I am fairly paid compared with people in similar jobs at different organizations:
Somewhat agreed: 17.3%
Neither agreed nor disagreed: 4.1%
Somewhat disagreed: 8.4%
A GENDER GAP
My job often is so stressful that I feel burned out (by gender, the percentage who agreed or somewhat agreed):
CANADA VERSUS THE UNITED STATES
The percentage who agreed with the following:
1. I would recommend my company as one of the best places to work in my community:
2. I would stay with my company even if offered a similar job with slightly higher pay:
3. My job often is so stressful that I feel burned out:
4. Management recognizes the importance of my personal and family life:
UPBEAT IN FINANCE, DOWN IN THE CIVIL SERVICE
By sector, the percentage who agreed with the following statements:
1. I have the resources I need to do my job well
High tech: 61.1
Government/ health/education: 50.7
2. My organization satisfies our customers' needs
High tech: 68.6
3. My job often is so stressful that I feel burned out
High tech: 29.6
THE B.C. BLUES
The percentage who agreed with the following:
1. I would recommend my company's products and services as the best a customer could buy:
2. I intend to stay with my organization for the next several years:
3. Management recognizes the importance of my personal and family life:
Maclean's May 31, 1999