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CUPE members work enough unpaid overtime that in some cases they could take a day off every week… and the stress of overwork is literally killing some of them

 Come gather round workers wherever you roam and speak out that the workload around you has grown

These lyrics, sung to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changing”, gave courage to the 243 strikers at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto this past summer. They were on strike, not for a wage increase, not for more benefits. They struck because of work overload.

CUPE 2190 members are not alone in that complaint. Workload problems are a major concern at many CUPE workplaces. In fact, like the frustrated anchorman in the movie Network, our members are starting to scream, ‘We have had enough and we aren’t going to take it anymore’.

Before the strike everybody was affected by the workload issue,” says Isabel Santos, chair of the local’s strike committee. “But the intake and family service workers were particularly affected.” These are the frontline social workers. They work directly with the families.

Workload has been an issue for years at CCAS. It got worse when the Ontario government introduced changes that give child protection workers more responsibility to intervene in family situations.

We welcomed some of the changes, but then you have to put the resources into doing the work. That didn’t happen,” Santos says. Much more time was needed to complete reports. But the CCAS computers were outdated. This added to the frustration.

Our strike was simply about overwork,” recalls CCAS intake worker Brooke McLean. “Management had done nothing to rectify the situation. We made good recommendations but they weren’t put in place. We knew things were going to get worse with the expanding mandate for child welfare in Ontario. Something needed to change.”

There was never enough time to do good client assessments,” she adds. “One visit and you’re out. Also, my own health care went completely out the window. We had no lives. We worked days, nights, weekends, virtually without any kind of breaks.” That further compounded the stress leading up to the strike.

Quite regularly the social worker just shows up because there is no time for a transfer meeting,” says Jonathan Kells, a CCAS family service worker. “You say hello to a five-year-old. ‘Hey! Guess what? I’m your new worker. A complete and utter stranger will be working with you now’.”

What gains did the local win? “We got grievable workload language,” Santos says. “We got it in the form of caseload caps. Some of our members feel they are still too high. Also, supervisors must sit down and talk to you about workload. They have to come up with a plan to prevent you from getting more overloaded than you already are.”

The proof of the pudding will come down to the number of workers CCAS hires to do the work,” says Kells. “There is more of a recognition now of what’s happening on the frontline caseloads. We’re in a recovery period.”

If things change in our workplace, yes it will have been worth it,” McLean agrees. “But if I’m frazzled I won’t be doing anyone any good. I won’t be able to make sound decisions if I’m burnt out, frustrated and ready to pull my hair out.”

She adds that it is ironic to have to go on strike to ensure that clients get the service they need. “We are supposed to protect children but when your workload is so unmanageable, you can jeopardize that role.”

What McLean and Kells say is backed up by a CUPE survey of over 700 social service workers in Ontario last year. Overloaded & Under Fire revealed an alarming increase in overload among 9,000 CUPE workers.

The effects of the workload increase are staggering,” the survey showed. About 94 per cent reported feeling run down, while 87 per cent feel exhausted and 89 per cent have headaches. Amazingly, about half said their symptoms were caused by work.

 

No more workload, make sure you hear, no more workload, let’s make it clear. No more workload. Workers can’t do any more.

Informal studies show that many CUPE members work so much unpaid overtime they should actually be getting as much as two weeks additional time off every year. The Ontario survey suggests that unpaid work is the equivalent of 630 CUPE jobs in the social service sector alone.

And a study by the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being at the University of Guelph showed that child care workers regularly “donate” a day’s work a week, with teachers doing an average of 5.3 hours of unpaid work each week, ranging up to 7.3 hours in PEI.

It’s all part of a workplace crisis called work overload that’s reaching epidemic proportions. And, according to an Angus Reid poll, women and public sector workers are more stressed from overwork than other workers in Canada.

The nationwide survey on health care released in May 2000 also found that “47 per cent of employed Canadians with a health benefit plan say they face ‘a great deal of stress at work’.”

The survey linked workplace stress and employee absenteeism and “clearly shows that stress generates significant costs for employers in terms of loss of productivity.”

At CUPE workplaces, there are also concerns that employers may be putting the added workload on the backs of minorities, youth and women workers.

 

You know I work all day so the kids will not get hurt but there ain’t enough hours in the day to finish all my paperwork

Work overload is also a health and safety problem. Clearly there is more possibility of workplace accidents when a worker is tired, overworked and distressed. It’s such a persistent problem, CUPE’s health and safety branch will hold a workshop on it at its February national conference.

It’s a high priority for us,” says Pearl Blommaert, chair of CUPE’s national health and safety committee and a health care worker in Saskatchewan.

Most collective agreements don’t cover it. It’s hard to pin down the causes. Health and safety laws have no specific sections dealing with staffing. There is no real measuring stick,” she adds.

The members know there is a problem and they are waiting for someone to lead the way and provide the means to fight it. Quite simply, there should be more of us doing the work.”

Overload can also lead to broader workplace and social problems such as poorer quality service and even family violence.

In our jobs, we take care of people,” says Sandi Howell, director of CUPE’s equality branch. “When services are cut back, when fewer people are hired to do the work, it is women at home who pick up the slack.”

Work overload in the workplace means less care. Patients don’t get shaved in nursing homes. Food is not as good as it should be because of the rush caused by short staffing or making tired staff work overtime.

Overload also can have an impact on the community. When people are stressed at work, they stop contributing to community activities, Howell adds. Fewer members have the energy to coach a Little League baseball team or lead a Girl Guide troop. “They are just too exhausted to do these things.”

Just as the 19th century captains of industry adopted systems to quantify worker production and force workers to speed up, so it is that work overload is justified by the production demands of the new millennium. Many of the same problems result. More injuries, decreasing worker satisfaction, social ills. We are, in fact, going backwards on this issue.

 

And things better start changing or we’ll sink like a stone for the workload is a growin’

Clearly, work overload isn’t a new problem. Nor is it just a Canadian problem. In Japan, for example, it is now possible to get compensation for “death by overwork.” It’s not a pleasant option, but it underlines the seriousness of the problem.

In the United Kingdom, social worker John Walker made legal history in the 1980s when a high court decided his employer had caused his nervous breakdown by overworking him. His union, UNISON, CUPE’s British counterpart, successfully argued that the breakdown was caused by employer negligence. He was compensated to the tune of almost $400,000.

In the United States, a current campaign calls for an end to “skyrocketing burnout” and the “most hazardous work-related illness: vacation deficit disorder.” Campaigners argue that what is needed is “more free time” by amending the law so that every American gets three weeks vacation after a year, rising to four weeks after three years.

Campaigners note that some European countries routinely take five to six weeks a year. They also raise the issue of a shorter workweek as a solution to the overwork problem. Experiments in some parts of Europe have shown that a shorter work week can result in more productivity and little loss in take-home pay when taxes are recalculated on lower gross incomes.

Shorter workweek advocates say we would save the environment by driving less, operating computers less, using fewer environmental resources. They also argue that we would have more time for friendships, family, celebration, walking, gardening. In short all the things – the leisure time – that were promised with the coming of the New Technology.

The Australians have taken up the workload cause with a campaign to tell workers not to “swallow dangerous hours.” The campaign literature insists that “Reasonable hours are safer hours.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has advised workers to “Say No. Take breaks, leave on time, don’t take work home and speak up when you have too much to handle.” They note that work overload indicates bad management and manifests itself in unpaid overtime, long hours, no time off and huge amounts of extra stress.

 

Someone’s in the office ‘til morning, someone’s in the office I know Someone’s in the office all weekend, this workload has to go

Yet another popular tune sung to strengthen the resolve of Local 2190 strikers last summer. Few among CUPE’s swelling ranks would disagree. They bear the brunt of politicians and employers pushing for more blood out of the CUPE stone.

Many may be preparing to hit the bricks themselves if the times — and the workloads — don’t change soon.

Ron Verzuh