Last year, the so-called “labour shortage” was headline news. Over the course of months, employers and their political associations were given ample opportunity to shape the terms of debate. Predictably, many used the chance to attack pandemic income benefits — most of which had by then expired — for supposedly disincentivizing work.

These swipes at temporary cash benefits were simply one manifestation of a broader false narrative that persists in Canada: that people are lazy and don’t want to work. In fact, the exact opposite is true: Canadian workers are overworked and burned out.

Last month, Statistics Canada released a new report showing exactly this. According to data collected during the April 2023 Labour Force Survey (LFS), more than one in five workers (21.2 per cent) reported experiencing “high or very high levels of work-related stress.” This work-related stress was most commonly the result of overly heavy workloads and difficulties balancing work and personal life. Yet these weren’t the only causes. Workers also cited overtime and long hours of work, pay and compensation issues, a lack of decision-making power at work, poor relations with supervisors or colleagues, job uncertainty, as well as harassment and discrimination, as sources of work-related stress.  

That’s roughly 4.1 million workers who, on a weekly basis, report experiencing high levels of stress because of work. If workers’ health and well-being were taken seriously, this would be considered a national crisis. But unfortunately, it’s reported with little commentary, let alone alarm. For comparison, there were just under 1.1 million unemployed workers in May 2023 (the latest available data). While Canada currently has an unemployment rate below its historical average, over a million unemployed workers nevertheless likely strikes most reasonable people as unacceptable and unnecessary. Four million over-stretched workers is equally, if not more, outrageous.

Unsurprisingly, women were more likely to experience work-related stress than men, owing in part to the disproportionate amount of care work they perform. Across each of the sources noted above, men and women cited comparable stress, with women reporting slightly greater levels (with the exception of overtime and long hours). But on one variable, women experienced far greater work-related stress (15.4 to 8.2 per cent): the “emotional load” of their work.

This emotional toll is in large part a reflection of the industrial and occupational composition of workplace stress. Workers in health care and social assistance reported the greatest prevalence of work-related stress, followed by public administration, professional, scientific and technical services, finance, real estate and insurance, and education.

This industrial profile reveals a notable bifurcation in the data: while highly educated, salaried employees in the professions report high levels of work-life stress, so too do workers in women-dominated public services, such as health care, social services, public administration and education. Moreover, within these latter industries, women report greater workplace stress, which is likely a reflection of the types of jobs women tend to hold.

That work-life stress is so heavily concentrated among workers in vital public services, such as health care, social services and education, should come as little surprise. This is the direct result of austerity and under-funding, attacks on wages and collective bargaining rights, and a general undervaluing of public sector work and the people who do it. In other words, high levels of work-life stress aren’t a natural feature of jobs in health care, social services and education; subjecting workers to such stress is a public policy choice.

In many respects, the health-care labour crisis epitomizes the consequences of austerity and a public policy orientation that treats workers as a cost to be contained. According to Statistics Canada’s LFS data, “heavy workload” was cited by 32.3 per cent of health care and social assistance workers as a source of stress, compared to 23.7 per cent on average. “Emotional load” was a stressor for 21.4 per cent of workers in health care and social assistance, while only a cause of stress for 11.7 per cent on average.  

Workplace stress in health care is a crisis that has simply been allowed to compound and worsen. In November of last year, average hourly wages in health care and social assistance grew by only 1.6 per cent, while wages overall grew by 4.2 per cent. This was another in a series of monthly real wage cuts brought about by inflation and public sector wage suppression. Through the fall and winter, even as job vacancies came down, health-care and social service vacancies remained persistently elevated, with workers in Ontario and British Columbia leaving in high numbers.

It’s not as though this was a surprise to governments. In fact, StatCan has been keeping a pretty close eye on the experiences of workers in health care. For example, the statistical agency surveyed health-care workers on their experiences during the September to December 2021 period of the pandemic and found some alarming results.

At that time, 86.5 per cent of those surveyed reported feeling stressed at work. Just shy of 18 per cent said they planned to leave their job within the next three years, including almost one in four nurses. Job stress and burnout, as well as concerns about their mental health and well-being, were cited as the primary reasons for intending to leave the profession. Predictably, the added stress of the pandemic accelerated issues already prevalent in health care, most notably a growing labour shortage as burned out workers fled the sector. Even as job vacancies have declined — in health care and overall — the level of vacancies in health care and social assistance remains far higher than most other sectors.

Statistics Canada’s report on work-life stress should be a warning. We need to address the underlying causes of workplace stress — overwork, the inability of many people to balance work and home-life and, importantly, the undervaluing of public services and the workers who carry them out. Fixing these issues starts with increased funding for, and protection of, our vital public services, particularly health care and health-care workers. But it doesn’t stop there.

Although Canada performs slightly better than the OECD average when it comes to annual hours worked, there’s plenty of room for improvement. For instance, in 2022 the average Danish worker put in 314 fewer hours of work than the average Canadian worker. The primary way to reduce average annual hours of work is by ensuring that all workers have access to plenty of public holidays and paid vacations, as well paid leaves for various personal and caregiving responsibilities, including robust sick and parental leaves, leaves for retraining, and, of course, paid sick days. It may also be time to seriously question the continued appropriateness of the five-day, 40-hour work week.

In many respects, more time away from work is a central part of mitigating workplace stress. However, we can’t neglect the role that having power at work plays as well. Reducing work-life stress necessitates fighting for workers to have greater collective say over the conditions of their work.

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