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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.”

  • Pashukanis

    Has the recession impacted anyone who doesn’t work on Bay St?

  • guest

    I can so relate. Every word in this article pretty much sums up my life in the past 2 years. I am an early 30s PM fighting to stay on top, watching people with more experience than myself get laid off. The assumption of 12 hr work days are the norm. The work load is at least double what it should be, leaving me beyond tired and very stressed trying to stay on top of everything. Oh ya, I have 3 beautiful childeren at home, all under the age of 4. Pretty much leaving my wife to look after everything at home, with no time for ‘us’. Sure, the money is good and the prestigus position is nice…but the quality of life…is it really worth it? Perhaps take the pay cut, find a nice small town and raise my family instead of my nanny raising them. Thoughts,

  • TA

    i lost my job in Nov 2008 – the worst time possible. I did odd jobs for all of 2009 – ploughing through my savings like a freight train.
    I don’t work on bay st, have a university degree and 8 years experience behind me…i was in the worst spot possible. it wasn’t until april 2010 that i finally got back on my feet. I am not working my butt off 60-70 hrs/week with no end in sight. it’s not great, morale is low but i tell you i would bever want to be back at the lowest points in 2009 when it seemed utterly hopeless.

  • Sandy

    Why is this acceptable? Companies (especially the Banks) are turning record profits and still laying off! We ought to adopt France’s regulations: If a company is in the black, they cannot lay off workers. We need a Union of the Workers in every work-place. Companies no longer have a conscience towards the HUMAN BEINGS that work for them and we have allowed them to treat us this way. It is unacceptable and the cost is massive to our health care system, economy, our mental state, family life, etc, etc… What will turn the tides of this sea of greed? Our government should be addressing this issue in a very aggressive way before there is a revolt or worse. Once the well is dry they’ll all be asking what happened, but the big guys will have taken theirs by then and it’ll just be too late for the rest of us.

  • Hogtown

    I started my career in the recession of the early 90s, and was not going to be part of another. When my high-pay but also high-stress advertising job became to much for me (and my family), I zigged out that business entirely and into publishing, where I continue to have a satisfying career, including a 6-figure salary, 40 hour work week, and great flexibility to include family obligations. Sometimes, looking outside the box can produce great results. Oddly enough, the agency I worked for later lost significant amounts of business and laid off many of the staff, so I really dodged a bullet by leaving on my terms.

  • AlsoAGuest

    Pashukanis are you serious? Bay Street is the reflection of all other Canadian companies’ financial state. Bay street manages the money and legal matters of smaller companies so if they are having problems best believe it will trickle down to the rest of us. Except for those who live in caves.

  • Mark

    Shout out to my homies at AMD.