Decent Work Movement: Lost Opportunity & Potential Advances

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As promised in the previous post World Day for Decent Work, this reflects on the outcomes of the Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Nonprofit Driven Conference 2016 session “Building a Decent Work Movement in Our Sector” held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on 20 October 2016. In addition, I want to propose filling significant gaps in the Draft Decent Work Charter being developed by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) & the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres organisation.

Sadly in the opinion of this attendee, what was marketed as a “strategic dialogue” session on Building a Decent Work Movement actually amounted to more presenter talking & audience listening rather than interchanging ideas. During the above session, there was little opportunity for the audience to ‘squeeze a word in edgewise.’ I heard little or no strategizing about moving forward in the ONN’s Decent Work initiative or further development of the Draft Decent Work Charter.

The most valuable contribution came from session speaker Ron Howarth, Executive Director of Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. He commented that the Draft Decent Work Charter can best be described as “aspirational intention.” I took the latter phrase to mean serving as preferred future target goals. In my view, this is necessarily opposed to the imposition of policy requirements on nonprofit organisations that are already overburdened & somewhat “distressed” in the word of Van Ymeren & Lalande (2015: 1 [PDF 5]). Instead, Mr. Howarth said that the Draft Charter & the related Draft Decent Work Checklist hopefully will serve as discussion-raising tools for nonprofit organisations. See the Draft Decent Work-Charter with Commentary & Draft Decent Work Checklist with Commentary documents that include annotations from your blogger Paul C. Thistle. These are found on the Task Saturation Documents: Background, Analysis, & Solutions page. Howarth also reported that a number of boards involved in the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres organisation already have adopted the Charter as drafted—all being significant steps in the right direction.

I want next to add to the discussion on the Draft Decent Work Charter. As outlined in the previous post, this blogger was somewhat disappointed by the absence in the Draft Charter of any commitment to protecting nonprofit organisation workers from the existing chronic problems of expectation inflation, work intensification, & resulting stress. Not all of the blame for this serious gap in the Draft Charter need fall on the ONN or the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres organisation because the International Labour Organization & the Decent Work Movement as a whole have failed to recognise the necessity of correcting the unchecked rise of damaging stress levels on workers (see Posen 2013: 2-4, passim) in order to ensure that work can be classified as “decent.”

The important Draft Decent Work Charter initiative of ONN & the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres organisation ignores what I believe to be an absolutely crucial component of any form of “decent work”—namely: freedom of workers from rising, unrealistic, & unresourced expectations characteristic of work in the nonprofit sector—including museums. This often results in work intensification, role overload, task saturation, time poverty, stress, reduced productivity, depression, burn- & drop-/push-out (Thistle 2015; Saunders 2004: 27 [PDF 42]; cf. Posen 2013). Recent research in Ontario found that there is a greater demand on the non-profit sector for service delivery but without proportionate resources to meet requirements imposed by rising demands for services in “an environment of doing more with less.” (McIsaac 2013: 65 [PDF 68]). For this observer, one of the most disappointing findings is that the sector is facing “. . . a disconnect between the visions of leadership and the reality of leading organizations in this sector . . .” (McIsaac 2013: 5). Nonprofit managers tend to underestimate the resources required to meet their laudable goals. See Thistle Managing Expectations & Stress Blog.

While preparing for the ONN conference session by reviewing the Change Work: Valuing Decent Work in the Not-for-Profit Sector background document prepared for the ONN & the Toronto Neighbourhood Network to promote discussion & encourage action (Van Ymeren & Lalonde 2015), I became even more disappointed—not to say depressed—about the failure to draft the Decent Work Charter in light of the relevant findings in this valuable research report. Change Work identifies several significant issues in the quality of working lives in the nonprofit sector that are not explicitly addressed by the Draft Decent Work Charter.

In light of the focus of this blog on solutions, I will not provide any of my analysis of shortcomings in the Change Work report itself here in this post. Blog readers interested can read all my comments on this document at Change Work Report with Commentary.

Instead, I will identify relevant Change Work report findings that I maintain should be made part of the Draft Decent Work Charter to help nonprofit organisations—including museums—establish decent work in this sector. My key recommendations for upgrading the Draft Charter follow:

  • Among the “symptoms of distress” found in the nonprofit sector that are named on page 1 of Change Work is the bullet “poor work/life balance for workers at all levels” (Van Ymeren & Lalande 2015: 1 [PDF 4 {hereinafter cited by page numbers alone}].
    • Sadly, this poor work/life balance symptom of distress in nonprofit organisations has not been included as an issue worthy of attention in the Draft Decent Work Charter. In this light—& because nonprofit organisations report a serious staff retention challenge caused by  “excessive workloads/insufficient staff resources” (McIsaac 2013: 22 [PDF 25])—I recommend in the strongest possible terms that the Draft Charter should include the aspiration that nonprofit organisations will put best efforts into supporting so-called work/life balance among its employees. I am, however, also suggesting here that the commonly used term work-life balance should be replaced in this context by the term “work/life separation” with the emphasis on separation. This is important because of the evident chronic problem that work in the modern world seeps across boundaries into non-work life. In great measure, this occurs through “work enhancing technologies” such as smartphones & laptop computers, to say nothing about expectation inflation & unrealistic employer expectations—amounting to “abuse” of workers according to Dr. David Posen (Towers et al. 2005: 14-18; Posen 2013: 109, 111-112, 247 passim; also see Thistle blog post on Smartphones). Dr. David Posen, who has been treating stressed workers for more than 25 years, states “. . . I have observed that an increasing amount of stress in recent years has been company-driven and organizations are doing precious little to own up to the damage they’re causing on a daily basis” [to worker health as well as institutional productivity] (Posen 2013: 321, passim). The Decent Work Charter needs to address this dilemma in the nonprofit world of work.
  • From the Change Work section on Extending Social Protection: “Ensure safe working conditions, allow adequate free time and rest, take into account family & social values . . . (p.5 [PDF 9]).
    • Surely such wording needs to be included in the Draft Charter that contains only one ambiguous use of the term “working conditions” (on p. 1).
  • Under the Change Work section Equality & Rights at Work: “A focus on rights and equality at work includes strong employment standards, respecting the mental and physical health of employees, . . .” (p. 18 [PDF 22]). Further, “. . . it is important that the sources of stress, anxiety and burnout in the sector are identified and reduced through strategies that support and respect the mental health of employees” (p. 19 [PDF 23]).
    • This terminology must be included to bolster the existing Draft Charter references to the concept of health that astoundingly are limited to health of communities & one mention of the need healthcare benefits[i] (pp. 1, 3, 4). Beyond health benefits & poor health outcomes arising from the stress caused by precarious work—that is the only cause of stress named in the Draft Charter—(p. 4) is the requirement to improve other working condition causes of ill-health ranging from toxic contamination to stress caused by rising, unrealistic, & unresourced expectations. I recommend the Draft Charter include freedom from unreasonable expectations to work longer & harder than paid for simply based on insufficient resources available to meet expectations, exploitation of worker commitment to the nonprofit mission, & resulting task saturation that are equally important sources of stress for nonprofit workers that all require redress.
  • From the Change Work Policy Changes section calling for “Promoting labour protection, which includes decent conditions of work, including wages, working time and occupational safety and health” (p. 29 [PDF 33]). Further, “that nonprofit employees surveyed report feeling obligated to carry out duties “above & beyond” (Van Ymeren & Lalande 2015: 20 [PDF 24]).
    • Need to Change Work indeed! The Draft Charter should commit to protecting workers from unreasonable expectations from nonprofit organisations that they will carry out overtime work that is unpaid or otherwise not compensated by in lieu time off. Working more hours than are paid for significantly reduces the actual rate of pay—that is often comparatively low to start with (McIsaac 2013: 21 [PDF 24]). Work intensification & overwork also are occupational safety & health concerns (Posen 2013: 2, passim). Nonprofit organisations must make the material working conditions in this sector “decent” in all respects, not simply those presently named in the Draft Charter.
    • Among 10 substantive elements of International Labour Organization development of Decent Work indicators, Van Ymeren & Lalande (2015: 6 [PDF 10]) list Decent working time & Combining family life & working time. This blogger believes however that decent work can never be achieved by “combining” family & work. That is the essential problem in the modern world because work creeps into family time. Work-family conflict is a growing problem found among Canadian workers in a major survey (Higgins et al. 2007: 6-11). A key concept in the Draft Charter must encourage separation of work time from family time.
  • Under Change Work Equality & Rights at Work section: “Develop strategies to support and respect the mental and physical health of employees. Identify sources of stress and “burnout” for employees” (p. 34 [PDF 38]).
    • This wording is required for the Charter with the addition of the words Identify and address sources of stress and “burnout” of employees and volunteers. In my view, it is not enough simply to acknowledge the existence of stress in the workplace. Nonprofit organisations need to work at dealing directly with the human resources crisis in our sector insofar as possible. The Change Work report identifies the lack of resources as an issue (pp. 24, 26, [PDF 28, 30]). However, no new staff or funding for example is required to protect existing workers from unrealistic expectations, overwork, task saturation, & stress. Absent new resources—& even if new resources are made available—it is a matter of nonprofit organisations being brutally realistic about what is actually possible in the real nonprofit world characterised by chronic conditions of limited resources. First & foremost, insufficient staff & volunteer resources need to be addressed by reducing expectations to a “decent” level! Nonprofit workers must not continue to be expected—by default if not intentionally—to become “willing slaves” to our jobs. See Bunting (2004). It is the contention of this blogger that, in many jurisdictions, much work by hourly rated nonprofit “willing slave” staff that is carried out as unpaid or otherwise uncompensated overtime is in fact illegal. For example see the Ontario Employment Standards Act Section 22 (Ontario 2000).
  • Under Culture and Leadership (p. 10 [PDF 14): “There is a sense that poor work-life balance contributes to burnout & stress.” Further, “it is important that the sources of stress, anxiety and burnout in the sector are identified and reduced through strategies that support and respect the mental health of employees” (p. 19 [PDF 23, 38].
    • Obviously, therefore, a commitment to prevent, reduce where possible, & treat chronic nonprofit workplace stress should be explicitly stated in the Charter.

In light of the above review, additions to the Draft Decent Work Charter I recommend to the Ontario Nonprofit Network & the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres organisation—and indeed to the International Labour Organization—follow. The entire text of the Draft Charter can be found at Draft Decent Work Charter with Commentary. My recommended  improvements to the Draft Decent Work Charter are shown underlined below with relevant page & paragraph numbers:

  • p. 1, para. 1: “. . . delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families . . .” to ensure safe working conditions, allow adequate free time and rest, and take into account family & social values. Workers must be free from unreasonable expectations to work longer & harder than they are paid for and provided proper separation of work from their non-work life.
  • p. 1, para. 4: “. . . confirm our commitment to advancing policy reforms needed to improve and implement better working conditions for all.”
  • p. 1, para. 5: “. . . confirm that we view decent work as an essential component of improving the working conditions for our own workforce and thereby support achieving our organizations’ missions and impacts.”
  • p. 2, para. 2, 1st bullet: “Decent work is a central source of personal dignity and protection from work-related ill-health, family stability, community cohesion . . .”
  • p. 2, para. 2, 2nd bullet: “. . . attracting, developing, protecting, and sustaining the passionate, dedicated and skilled people who work in our sector.
  • p. 3, para. 2, footnote 2: “ . . . definition of precarious work as non-standard any employment that is poorly paid, insecure for any reason including causing physical or mental illness, unprotected, and cannot support a household . .  .”
  • p. 3, para. 3: “. . . commitment to the principles of Decent Work, and to inform our individual and collective employment practices and advocacy efforts for policy reforms that aim to improve work conditions.”
  • p. 4, para. 1: “Defining ‘Decent Work’ . . . equality of opportunity and treatment for all.” The signatories additionally consider that Decent Work shall include protection of workers from deliberate or default exploitation through unresourced expectations, role overload, resulting chronic stress, and burnout.
  • p. 4, para. 3, 1st bullet: “Fair Income . . . living wage policies including ensuring paid vacations actually are taken and standards that promote income fairness . . .”
  • p. 4, para. 3, 3rd bullet: “Stable Employment . . . includes thinking about employment protections” among them from work that causes physical or mental illnesses . . .
  • p. 5, 1st bullet: “Work Cultures . . . respecting maintaining healthy working conditions by protecting & addressing the mental and physical health of employees and volunteers affected by workplace stress . . .”
  • p. 5, 3), para. 1: “Values . . . Decent work is a central source of . . . individual worker and societal well-being.
  • p. 5, A1): “Labour-Market Policies . . . – labour market legislation and enforcement needed to protect both our most vulnerable and all workers
  • p. 5, A1) “Labour-Market Policies . . .: Add new bullet #3: – protection of all workers from unresourced expectations causing role overload leading to chronic stress and burnout
  • p. 6, A2) “Sector Funding Reforms. . . strengthen our capacity for improving our own workers’ and community well-being”
  • p. 6, B1): “Decent work practices . . . creating ongoing opportunities for . . . agencies to discuss, highlight and, popularize, and implement decent work practices across their diverse workplaces
  • p. 6, B5): “connecting part-time positions across organizations to create full-time opportunities, being mindful to protect part-time workers from ‘task creep’ and/or expectation inflation that informally pushes part-time responsibilities toward full-time commitments without relevant pay increases
  • 6, B6): “exploring the feasibility of standing employment pools that could sustain people between contracts . . . for emergency and short-term assignments”, scrupulously avoiding turning existing full-time work in our own organisations into temporary contract work
  • p. 7, C6): “to the extent possible, assessing the purchasing of external goods and services using a Decent Work lens (e.g. seek to contract with, and buy goods from companies paying living wages and fair benefits” and that do not exploit their hourly-rated workers by expecting them to work at certain times without pay, for example as some federally regulated banks do)
  • p. 7, C11): “sharing and popularizing effective HR practices and policies as well as following legislative requirements regarding overtime, etc. to promote decent work”
  • p 8, C15): “endorsing and supporting relevant campaigns and initiatives striving for reforms that would promote decent work (e.g. minimum wage campaigns, 8-hour workday movement, employment standards reforms, . . .)”

It is clear from on-the-job experience of many nonprofit organisation workers (including those in museums) that the quality of our working lives is declining due to expectation inflation in the absence of resources required to meet growing demands. Many of us would agree with Dr. David Posen (2013: 289) that “the way we are working [harder, faster, longer] is not working.” Truly, the modern world of work must be changed so it can be “decent.” We can advance this process through implementing the findings of the Change Work report (Van Ymeren & Lalande 2015).

In light of the above analysis, the Draft Decent Work Charter is an important step toward solving many critical workplace issues but, arguably, it also must address what it currently ignores: chronic task saturation & resulting debilitating levels of stress in nonprofit sector work.

Respectfully submitted

Paul C. Thistle

References Cited:

Bunting, Madeline. 2004. Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Higgins, Chris, Duxbury, Linda, & Lyons, Sean. 2007. Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t. Report 5. Ottawa: Health Canada.

McIsaac, Elizabeth et al. 2013. Shaping the Future: Leadership in Ontario’s Nonprofit Labour Force. Final Report. ONN Human Capital Renewal Strategy: Phase One. Toronto: Ontario Nonprofit Network & The Mowat Centre. http://theonn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Shaping-the-Future.Leadership.pdf (accessed 22 September 2016).

Ontario. 2000. Employment Standards Act, 2000, S.O. 2000, c. 41 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/00e41#BK40 (accessed 14 November 2016).

Saunders, Ron. 2004. Passion and Commitment Under Stress: Human Resource Issues in Canada’s Non-profit Sector – A Synthesis Report. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. https://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwjLuZKPmanQAhXE44MKHeYtBcwQFgggMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cprn.org%2Fdocuments%2F25808_en.pdf&usg=AFQjCNGknf2EbzLfNKSXjwuGV5sD27vQJA&bvm=bv.138493631,d.amc&cad=rja (accessed 14 November 2016).

Towers, Ian, Duxbury, Linda, & Thomas, John. 2005. “Time Thieves and Space Invaders: Technology, Work and the Organisation.” Paper presented to the 4th Annual Critical Management Studies Conference July 2005, Cambridge. https://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjv-NyKvJfQAhXh7IMKHcOTCqAQFggbMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fciteseerx.ist.psu.edu%2Fviewdoc%2Fdownload%3Fdoi%3D10.1.1.98.9879%26rep%3Drep1%26type%3Dpdf&usg=AFQjCNHxD_vyeMKziMX27Z-g9BplY8Vqog (accessed 7 November 2016).

Thistle, Paul C. 2015. “Managing Expectation Inflation and Resulting Stress in Museum Work.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog found at https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/thistle-managing-expectations-stress.pdf (accessed 11 November 2016).

Van Ymeren, Jamie & Lalande, Lisa. 2015. Change Work: Valuing Decent Work in the Not-for-Profit Sector [PDF format]. Toronto: The Mowat Centre, Ontario Nonprofit Network, & Toronto Neighbourhood Centre. http://theonn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Change-Work.png (accessed 7 November 2016).

[i] Benefits are one important thing, but surely, first and foremost in importance is the quality of the actual working conditions–some of which contribute directly to ill-health. Let’s reduce the need for health benefits such as stress leave by changing the working conditions that cause physical & mental health problems—everything from poisonous contaminations, unreasonable expectations, & exploitation to avoidable levels of stress.  The bottom line on benefits is that we must improve the working conditions, loss of productivity, quality of working lives, work/life separation, etc. if nothing else in order to keep the costs of medical insurance for example at a minimum.  In any event, recent news identifies that the insurance industry is increasing its rate of claim denials—so the ‘pound of cure” is likely to become evermore expensive than the ‘ounce of prevention.’

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