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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.”