The great burnout: recession survivors didn’t count on the surge in workload, the smaller paycheque and the all-consuming resentment. A story about workplace hell with no escape

The great burnout: recession survivors didn’t count on the surge in workload, the smaller paycheque and the all-consuming resentment. A story about workplace hell with no escape

It’s been three years since the mass cull of the Great Recession began.

Three years since all those jobs were zapped into oblivion, and the people who remained employed were left to shoulder double, triple or quadruple loads.

For my generation, the timing couldn’t have been worse. My close friends and university classmates are exiting their 30s and have mortgages and kids and barely enough minutes to shovel the driveway. They’re entering the phase that used to be called “mid-life,” which in the best of times is a moment for evaluation and maybe even reassessment. But after the worst economic upheaval we’ve ever known, they’re reeling. A financial analyst in her early 40s tells me how 12-hour days—which used to be the exception—are now the norm: she puts in full and breakless stretches at the office, then keeps the laptop burning for hours every night after her two young kids have gone to bed. Another executive was burned out after her company took on dozens of new projects and she was left to run everything. She now works up to 100 hours a week and gets phone calls from friends she hasn’t seen in months, asking if she’s moved or died.

This isn’t exactly news. Downsizing happens, and survivors work feverishly for a couple years until the economy improves and firms staff up again. Call it the two-year rule. But there’s something different about this last recession: it won’t quite end. It’s true we’ve technically been in a state of recovery for more than 18 months. Even the constitutionally risk-averse Mark Carney says so. But salaries haven’t returned to pre-recession levels, Bay Street’s sages continue to speculate about a double-dip, and companies that returned to profits are continuing to pinch every penny.

In Toronto’s capital markets industry, the recession kicked off with brutal firings that kept pace with the economy’s decimation: 50 employees gone at AGF Management’s trust company; 53 from the mutual fund company AIC; 170 at Canaccord Capital; 250 at the money manager DundeeWealth; 280 jobs outsourced by RBC; 150 gone at CIBC World Markets. As the banks and car companies and retailers cut back, the advertising business lost accounts and panicked: Cossette fired 50, MacLaren McCann 53, and so on. The media companies, hobbled by shrinking ad revenue, followed suit: CTV laid off 105 people, the CBC cut 331, the Toronto Star 122, the Globe and Mail gave voluntary severance to 60 and let 30 go, or more than 11 per cent of its staff. One expert ballparks that the Seven Sisters dismissed 10 per cent of their lawyers and support staff. Some of the lawyers who survived now typically rack up 2,400 billable hours a year. Unlike in previous recovery periods, the eliminated jobs aren’t all coming back.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged by management scholars that layoffs are bad for business. Fifteen years’ worth of studies found depleted morale, loss of employee loyalty and slowed financial growth caused by downsizing. The reason is obvious: even the highest performers on staff will, at some point, buckle under the strain of high expectations and diminishing rewards. In a 2008 survey of employees who’d held on to their jobs across 318 companies, 74 per cent reported a decrease in their productivity, 81 per cent admitted to a decline in the quality of customer service, and 77 per cent said more errors were being made at work.

Extreme workers say they don’t sleep enough, exercise enough or have as much sex as they’d like. Their home life is a wreck. Many say they’d turn down a promotion if the job demanded more of them

Before the recession, we were already working more than is reasonable. The term “extreme work” was coined in 2006 by the Columbia University professors Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce. They studied high-earning professionals whose lives were governed by tight deadlines, unpredictable travel-filled schedules, constant availability to clients, and responsibilities not only to the profitability of their company but commensurate with more than one full-time job. “The 60-hour work week, once the path to the top, is now practically considered part-time,” Hewlett and Luce wrote. At the time of the study, 45 per cent of all high earners in global companies fit the notion of extreme.

Post-recession, the extreme workers have even more to do. Jeff Muzzerall, the director of the MBA Corporate Connections Centre at the Rotman School of Management, says a devotion to endless workdays is culturally ingrained. He presides over the job placements of all those optimistic, fresh-faced grads. “Our alumni used to tell us they work 65 hours per week, on average,” he says, referring to the entry level at the busiest consulting firms. “Now it’s up to 100 hours.”

The toll of extreme work is as much physical as it is psychological. The professionals surveyed by Hewlett and Luce said they don’t sleep enough, exercise enough or have as much sex as they’d like. Their home life is a wreck: their kids have attention issues, watch too much TV and don’t do as well as they could at school. Most have no dedicated support staff and said they’d decline a promotion if the job demanded more of them. Downsized workplaces also make us sick. One Finnish study found that increased unhealthiness was most common in two groups of people after a restructuring: those who were fired and remained unemployed, and those who stayed.

A 35-year-old extremer, an executive at a TV production company, told me she works around the clock. We met at a Queen East bar, where she ordered a glass of red wine and a hummus plate—her dinner. “I’m going home, though, right after this, to work,” she said. She claims to spend virtually every minute of her waking life focused on her job—she’s psychologically tethered to it, despite the sleeplessness, exhaustion and overwhelming stress it causes. “I’m tired all the time,” she explained. “I’m responsible for 150 lives, and I try to run my own life, too, but all of my stuff falls by the wayside.” She took her second vacation in 11 years over Christmas. As for a personal life, she’s dating a man in the same field. “We have work dates, where both of us sit quietly and read scripts,” she said. Her BlackBerry pulsated throughout our encounter, reminding her of the 2,700-plus e-mails she hasn’t found the time to answer.

At the peak of the Great Recession, to avoid layoffs, some Toronto companies cut salaries by five to 10 per cent across the board. Few workers grumbled about the measures, if it meant the company—and their jobs—didn’t disappear like many of their benefits had. A similar and more ambitious program was expanded by German legislators in 2009. Kurzarbeit (“short work”) enabled companies to avoid layoffs by reducing work hours by a third, with the government subsidizing the lost payroll. Aided by kurzarbeit and a global demand for its exports, Germany’s economy began bouncing back, hitting a growth rate of 3.3 per cent by the end of 2010, from negative 4.7 per cent a year before.

In contrast, the Canadian economy has remained sluggish. The slow pace of growth, coupled with the cheapskate hard­wiring of CEOs, has pre-empted a re-hiring boom.

It’s impossible to love a boss who cuts your pay. Before the recession, Bay Street’s capital markets employees typically earned 200 to 500 per cent of their salary in bonuses. In the heat of the meltdown, those bonuses were dramatically reduced or eliminated altogether. I heard about one firm that gave employees a choice: keep your job or take a bonus, in lieu of severance. Post-recession, circumstances aren’t much better.

Bill Vlaad, a headhunter who specializes in capital markets, is inundated with job candidates who are fed up and yearning for better-paying gigs. “Before the down market, people would say, ‘My job sucks, I work way too many hours, I don’t get to see my family, but at least I’m getting’ ”—he holds his hand several inches above his head, palm down—“ ‘this much money.’ Then they start getting this amount of money”—his hand drops about a foot—“and that’s when they go, ‘Forget it. I’m done.’ ”

They may be searching for better options, but few who dodged the recession’s cull would dare contemplate leaving their overburdened, salary-frozen jobs without having another position lined up. Jobs today are defined by an entrenched obligation, a culture of no alternatives. The terror of the unknown and the prospect of mid-career reinvention seem even more daunting than the work we already have. The financial analyst who continues to work after her kids go to bed describes a kind of psychological contract between employers and staff, an implicit agreement that everyone be available year-round, 24/7. “You no longer push back against it,” she says, “so the work never turns off.” Post-recession, they live in fear of the tap on the shoulder—not the tap that comes before you lose your job, but the one that brings more work. Only when they get fired, or finally work up the nerve to quit, do they see the futility of giving so much time to someone else’s bottom line.

I met one investment banker in his late 30s who managed $100 million in assets and made $200,000 a year until the company closed its Toronto office. “There comes a point when you think, Why should I continue in the corporate politics, the hierarchy, the bureaucracy, working under someone else’s thumb?” he said. After a dozen years in capital markets (and an 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. minimum mandated workday), he’s now an entrepreneur launching a real estate sales business. He was wearing jeans when we met at a Starbucks, at 10:30 in the morning on a Wednesday, an appointment he didn’t hurry to leave. His days have become quiet and blissed-out, the stress of hours measured in blinking BlackBerrys shed like an old skin. This is a far different life. “Sure, I had to adjust to the loss in prestige,” he said. But so what? He got over it, along with the super-sized salary. It wasn’t worth it.