In all provinces and at all levels of the public sector, CUPE members are suffering from excessive and growing demands on their working time. Faced with downsizing, mergers, amalgamations and cutbacks many CUPE members are being forced to carry overwhelming workloads. All the while, governments are bragging about ’more efficient’ public services where smaller workforces are cleaning more schools, caring for more patients, providing social services to more clients and ensuring that municipal infrastructures are maintained.
Besides selling the public short, governments are stretching a dedicated workforce ever thinner. In the process, they’re causing an increase in injuries and work-related stress.
Excessive workloads or work overload isn’t just having too much work to do or working longer hours. Employers today are intent on making us work harder and faster. They are changing and intensifying the way we do our work. Their goal is to be able to have us do more work with fewer workers. In the end it all amounts to the same thing – our bodies and our dignity just can’t take it.
Work overload includes:
- Long and difficult hours
- Unreasonable work demands
- Pressure to work overtime (paid and unpaid)
- Fewer rest breaks, days off and holidays
- Faster, more pressured work pace
- Performance monitoring
- Unrealistic expectations
- Additional, often inappropriate, tasks imposed on top of ’core’ duties (doing more than one job)
- No replacements during sick leaves or vacations
There are compelling examples that point to a national crisis with work overload. But it’s been a CUPE member in Calgary who has paid the highest price. Brother Willy, a custodian for the Calgary Public School Board and a member of Local 40, maintained a diary of his plight with excessive workload and increasing cutbacks.
Work overload can result in serious problems, including:
- Musculoskeletal injuries
- Fatigue and related accidents
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Increased exposure to health and safety hazards such as noise, temperature extremes and hazardous substances
We have to begin to work together and say NO to work overload. It’s important to establish that poor work organization by management is often behind the problem and that it’s not the fault of individual workers. In addition, locals should work to:
- Challenge the power of management to pressure, encourage or allow employees to be overloaded at work.
- Remind employers of their obligation under health and safety legislation to take all reasonable precautions for a safe workplace.
- Pressure government health and safety officers to look seriously at the health and safety effects of chronic work overload, and to devise strategies to address the problem.
- Act collectively to ensure safe workloads and working arrangements.
- Begin local community debates about the health and safety (and social) consequences of excessive workloads and working hours.
CUPE’s Health and Safety Branch, with the help of the National Health and Safety Committee, is stepping up its efforts to tackle workload and overwork. CUPE members in Manitoba have been surveyed to gauge the impact of growing workloads and a plan to tackle the issue is being developed.
If we’re going to make progress in our struggle to protect sustainable workloads, we’re going to have to do several things:
- Recognize excessive workload as an occupational health and safety issue;
- Raise awareness of the health and safety consequences of workload/overwork among CUPE locals;
- Inform CUPE members about their rights to a safe and healthy workplace, free from the health hazards of overwork; and
- Alert employers that CUPE is committed to eliminating the health and safety threats posed by overwork and increasing workloads.
As well, we must put pressure on governments to develop and enact preventative occupational health and safety legislation on workload. The legislative changes could include prohibitions on overwork, the right for joint occupational health and safety committees to investigate and resolve workload-related health and safety complaints and a clear right to refuse to work in situations where workload compromises a worker’s health and safety.
We cannot sit by and let employers continue to increase the spiral of injuries to our members. For Brother Willy, the consequences of work overload were simply too much to bear.
According to Alberta’s Chief Medical Examiner, Brother Willy died on November 28, 1998 of carbon monoxide poisoning. The handwritten note he left for his family read: Call security BofE… Tell Willy won’t be in on Monday. Send sick relief. I am in the garage. Call Police.
Quotes from Brother Willy’s Diary
November 7, 1998
I feel so alone and am scared to go back to work. Everything is so overwhelming to me. I don’t know what to do. Everything over the last 2-3 years was too much for me… 15 years of cutbacks with the Board of Education, especially end of June 98. I am just hanging in for dear life (overwhelming).
November 15, 1998
Sunday. Very quiet day. Back to work tomorrow. I am scared of the place. Just too much work… feel I cannot fail them. No support from management. They’re not to be seen and heard from. Like they don’t even exist. No support or care about the fieldworkers… that is what gets me down like that. I hope I can hang in there.
November 19, 1998
Pressure at work is relentless… I don’t know if its worthwhile to wait for (pension)… work all your life and then this Board of Education working the shit out of everybody with 60-70 people on sick a day and with only 34 or 36 sick relief.
November 22, 1998
I will go back to work tomorrow but I am scared, terrified of this workload and to keep it up. Pain in my chest for some time. I will do what I can.
November 25, 1998
In paper and TV, Board of Education cutting back some more due to money problems. Where is this going? Personally cannot possibly keep up… now (no support, no help, feel I am left to dry out on a limb). I don’t know how to survive at this stage.
November 26, 1998
Informed today further cut back by Board of Education… possibly lose Cleaner I. I think this is it. I can’t go on like this. The stress is terrible. Have chest pain and shakes really hard to hold myself together. Rest of staff all upset.
November 28, 1998
I can’t stop thinking about Board of Education talk in the news and paper. This seems really to affect me the most. I get… the shakes when I think about it.