Health and Wellness / Executive Work and Health Surveys

Executive Work and Health Surveys

APEX recognizes that surveys have been an important driver of improvements in achieving better individual and organizational health for executives. The EWHS surveys have historically been completed at five year intervals over the last twenty years and have been formally recognized as a contributor to research into executive workplace well-being. In 2021, APEX advanced this critical source of information on executive health a year earlier to respond to the importance of understanding how our current context is affecting the community.

The State of Executive and Workplace Health

Over 4,000 executives in the federal public service responded to the sixth Executive Work and Healthy Study (EWHS).

Through the EWHS, we better understand the fabric of the executive cadre and use the results to inform programs and services at APEX and in the public service.

NEW! Are the 2021 APEX Health Study Findings Just a Blip? - June 10th, 2022

Response to June 7th, 2022 Deputy Circle Queries – By Dr. Wayne Corneil

Epidemiologist Dr. Wayne Corneil weighs in on the 2021-22 Health Study findings indicating that the fault lines were already present prior to the pandemic.  It simply expanded them and made some more evident than others.

Click here to download and read a PDF version of this article.

During the June 7, 2022 Deputy Circle discussion, the question was raised as to what extent the pandemic influenced the outcomes of the 2021 EWHS.  It should be noted that the data were collected in the spring of 2021 when there was a lull between waves and a certain optimism was evident among the population as vaccines were being rolled out across the country.

It is evident that for some individuals, the pandemic brought significant personal impacts with either their own or loved ones’ illnesses and the tragic as well as often traumatic loss of loved ones. For some public servants, the necessity to both move to virtual work and to deliver services in a highly pressurized environment no doubt contributed to their personal and family stress.

One of the advantages of the EWHS is its longevity, with data having been collected over a 25-year period.  This provides a perspective not available through other research.   For the purposes of this response, I looked at the data for the past decade from 2012, 2017 and 2021 iterations of the EWHS. What is evident is that trends for the key factors were already in place.  What the pandemic contributed was the exacerbation of some, interestingly in both positive and negative directions.  For example, there was a decrease in the frequency of harassment which can be attributed to the reduction of in person interactions in the office.  The type of harassment morphed into microaggression, more subtle and difficult to identify, yet still very toxic for those exposed to it.

The level of commitment and dedication also rose, primarily due to the sense of purpose which public servants felt in supporting Canadians through the pandemic.   Resilience at the individual level was also slightly higher, while remaining at the low levels we have seen over a decade of tracking it. Certainly, exhaustion reached its highest levels.  That was coupled with lack of recovery time and negative work/home interference, mostly due to the move to the virtual workplace.

These key outcomes and the drivers that create them, are not as a result of the pandemic.  They were already trending in the wrong directions over the past 10 years. In 2017, the context that affected the outcomes was associated with the Phoenix pay debacle, which as was noted in your conversation, continues to this day. The issue of Effort/Reward Imbalance which is mostly related to a lack of recognition has been trending upwards since 2012. The disconnects across levels are widening.

To use the analogy of the highways and bridges, one can discuss the impact of the pandemic in the EWHS.  The cause in the failure of the highways could be attributed to the effects of climate change which were manifest in the heavy rains and winds.  However, that was not the key factor in the collapse of bridges and roads being washed away. The issue is with the lack of ongoing maintenance over an extended period of time such that key infrastructures were weaken and susceptible to failure once placed under stress. Some of that was also due to inadequate design which did not take into account the potential for such severe stress.   Even the mudslides had been predicted from modeling identifying the loss of forest cover along key highways. Moreover, one cannot place the onus on the truck drivers for not being able to deliver on time, when the roads were impassible. It was not individual resilience that comes into question but rather the resilience of the system and its associated infrastructures.

We see the same patterns in the EWHS data. The fault lines were already present prior to the pandemic.  It simply expanded them and made some more evident than others.  Inclusion or the lack thereof, was not a factor created by the pandemic, it was however widened by organizational and structural choices made during the pandemic.  The increase over the past years in the demographics of the executive community to be more diverse has not created the culture change necessary for inclusion.  That is a systems wide fault line, not a pandemic one. Like the highways, the systems and infrastructure that are weak in the public service will not repair themselves.  It necessitates a concerted effort to redesign, change the procedures and processes such that they can withstand not only the “routine” demands placed on the public service but also anticipate more severe situations such as the move to hybrid work. The issues that were on the agenda at the time of the pandemic have not disappeared.  Reconciliation, climate change and economic concerns will continue to be priorities along with new ones such as the war in Ukraine.   One must not forget the pandemic is not over.

Report Synopsis

2021 APEX EXECUTIVE WORK AND HEALTH STUDY
REPORT SYNOPSIS

Click here to download and read a PDF version of this report. 

APEX has ben studying the health and wellbeing of executives since 1997. The Executive Work and Health Study (the Study) is based on looking at the underlying determinants of workplace health and the pathways of causality. It looks not just at the direct linkages between health and work but also the causes of causes.

The emphasis is on the interaction between factors that combine to increase risk of individual and organizational outcomes along with those factors that diminish those risks. This type of modeling shows how the work environment has a greater impact on health outcomes than do the individual lifestyle factors that are usually associated with specific illnesses. This is a population health approach which does not focus on individuals or disease but on health outcomes.

1.1 Context
The Study was conducted in 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when case loads were relatively low, new vaccines were becoming available, and there was a sense of optimism. Increasing pride for having delivered services to Canadians has come at a significant cost to executives’ physical health (excellent/very good down 10% to 47%) and mental well-being (excellent/very good mental health down 16% to 38%). They are fatigued and struggling to recover mindful of the new challenges facing the Federal Government such as emerging fiscal pressures, climate shifts and reconciliation. Virtual work has exacerbated key drivers of organizational outcomes.

In 2017, the Study revealed a major increase in executives’ stress levels due in large part to the Phoenix pay situation. This spike in reported stress was pervasive enough to reverse positive trends from 2007 to 2012. In 2021 we saw a return to 2012 levels in areas but key health outcomes such as burnout continued to worsen.

Wordcloud: Fiscal, remote, work, change, leadership, workload, health, mental, balanceFigure 1: Word cloud from respondents’ written responses to the question: “: What do you think is the single biggest challenge facing the Federal Government in the next five years?”

 

1.2 Themes
As we explored the data several themes emerged:

1.2.1 A combination of pride and fatigue
Executives reported very high levels of pride in their work (88%) and a firm dedication to serving Canadian citizens, but the long hours and the impacts of virtual work have increased the extent of diminished energy and burnout (75%) across the breadth of executive community. Commitment to individual work remains strong (57%) but commitment to organization and the public service in general is negatively impacted by increasing rates of cynicism due to burnout. High risk hours (more than 55 hours per week) have declined to 1 in 5 executives (18%) but Negative Work Home Interference has hit hard those working from home, particularly higher levels (41%) and women. Home/work life balance is elusive. Effort/Reward Imbalance is also out of kilter (69%), as executives indicate they are not being recognized for the level of effort and contribution they are putting forward. It should be underscored reward is not limited to compensation rather it is the frequent internal and external acknowledgement of their contributions. Feedback and support from peers and superiors is powerful.

1.2.2 A changing and diverse organizational culture with persistent inequities
Level remains a considerable factor that impacts both individual and organizational health outcomes. However, it has been eclipsed by the shift in the public service’s demographics. From 1997 to 2012, the executive community was predominately homogenous, comprised of Caucasian males (73%). From 2012 to the present, the executive community’s make-up has changed to be primarily women (51%) with considerably increased numbers in the other employment-equity-seeking groups.

While women are more likely than men to face disrespect and microaggressions that undermine them professionally—such as being interrupted or having their judgment questioned—women who self-identified within racialized groups suffer them at a higher rate. These experiences can take a heavy toll: women who regularly experience microaggressions are twice as likely as those who don’t to be burned out, more than twice as likely to report feeling negatively about their job, and almost three times as likely to say they’ve struggled to concentrate at work in the past few months due to stress.

1.2.3 The continued prevalence and toxicity of harassment and incivility
Even with a low likelihood (12%), the toxicity of harassment is too significant to ignore. The evidence of harassment combined with incivility and disrespect underscore its insidious nature. Both are about omission – being excluded or ignored, snide comments, being humiliated in meetings, interference with work or withholding resources. The APEX Advisory Services for Executives (ASE) annual report shares insights and offers questions for reflection as individuals and organizations address harassment in the workplace and the shift from overt bullying to microaggressions in the online environment.

1.2.4 The positive buffering effects of job level on individual and organizational outcomes
Above all, the determinants of health have been tied to level. The most senior levels report more workload and demands which are often offset by access to more resources, greater span of individual control and more recognition. The positive impact of resources, recognition and control at higher levels also holds true for women and equity seeking groups as executives in those groups do better as they go up in level. However, the most senior levels suffer from the lowest levels of support from superiors (19%) and lowest rate of recovery (42%).

1.2.5 Gaps and disconnects
There was a lack of awareness of the other’s experience, particularly between lower and higher levels and equity seeking groups. This kind of disconnect can make it hard for those in positions of authority to even see that there is a problem, leading to inaction that perpetuates inequities and continues to hold back women and the equity seeking groups in the workplace. However, this effect was not limited to diversity and inclusion. For example, there is a disconnect between those with experiencing mental health issues, and those who are not affected. Those with mental health issues report far less confidence in the system (52%) or benefits (49%).

1.2.6 Role of work culture
The research shows that most healthy cultures are marked by common understanding, psychological safety, and empathetic leadership. Few organizations build thriving cultures without teams that understand and collaborate well toward the purpose of helping others. Consider culture as a set of concentric circles. Organizational culture is the outer ring and depending on the size of the organization different areas and functions serve as middle rings—with an individual team the innermost ring of the culture. Senior leaders not only shape the overall culture but must also train leaders at all levels to pay attention to how their actions align with or misalign with that culture. Culture is shaped by the worst behaviour tolerated.

1.3 Conclusion
One may describe executives as having weathered the storm of the pandemic. It is also evident that some have come through better than others. Overall, executives are bruised, weary, looking for relief and needing time to recovery and refresh. The call to action is with their superiors and organizations. Supervisor support is a key driver of both individual and organizational health outcomes. What is just as clear is that supervisors also need support, recognition, and appropriate leadership competences particularly to achieve meaningful inclusion. The ASE reports a 52% increase in the demand for its confidential counselling services since 2017. A staggering 38% were related to supervisors. As the ASE’s 2020-2021 Annual Report noted, “we have few clients who have people-centric superiors” (p.15). In looking for best practices and models of success, there are interesting insights within non-core organizations worth further study. In most instances non-core organizations were doing better than the Core Public Administration. This is attributable to the structural and systemic differences that result in different organizational environment and cultures.

Initial Findings Presentation

To host a one-hour briefing with your executive team on the State of Executive and Workplace Health, please contact info@apex.gc.ca.

The 2017 APEX Executive Work and Health survey paints a picture of an executive population that feels pride in their work, respected by their superiors and increasingly committed despite a high-stress, demanding work environment with constant time-pressure and an ever increasing workload.

About the survey

The 2017 Executive Work and Health Survey is the Fifth Edition since 1997. Over the past 20 years, APEX has conducted research focused on the health and well-being of executives within the federal public service.

APEX commissioned Ipsos to conduct the survey from May 2 to June 19, 2017. 3,075 executives provided a response to the survey which constitutes a 48% response rate (an increase over the 35% response rate achieved in 2012). Of those who provided a response, 2,674 executives fully completed the survey.

The survey provides an assessment of individual and organizational health measures within the executive work environment. The research explored new issues such as readiness for the future with a focus on preparing for the digital economy and digital services as well as addressing psychological and mental health issues in the workplace.

What we found

The 2017 Executive Work and Health survey paints a picture of an executive population that feels pride in their work, respected by their superiors and are increasingly committed despite a high-stress, demanding work environment with constant time-pressure and an increasing workload. Key outcome measures like job satisfaction and self-rated health status remain stable and relatively strong compared to 2012.

There are, however, some worrisome trends which could negatively impact individual and organizational health over time. Thirty-five percent report working 55 or more hours per week (up from 25% in 2012), satisfaction with pay has declined and 70% have thought about leaving their current position at least monthly in the past 6 months. Further, from a personal health standpoint the majority of executives are classified as overweight or obese, more executives have been diagnosed with musculoskeletal (from 28% to 45%), mental health (from 11% to 21%), and gastro intestinal (from 8% to 18%) issues than in 2012. The incidence of incivility continues to be of concern.

For most, managing the demands of work have only been exacerbated by the increasing use of e-technology which led executives to feel obligated to work after hours, has made it more difficult to take a break from work and has not provided them any more flexibility. While the majority feel e-technology has increased their productivity (particularly among younger executives), their ability to do their job and ability to communicate it has also increased their workload and steadily decreased work life balance over the years.

Public sector executives are much less confident in their ability to balance the demands of work and personal life compared to those in similar managerial positions across Canada, as well as less likely to feel their employer promotes a work-life balance or that they have a psychologically healthy workplace.

Lower level executives, while reporting fewer work hours, are much more likely to have issues managing the demands of work. Lower level executives are less satisfied with their job, feel less respected, are more likely to get burnt out from work and are less likely to feel they can take risks on their team. They are also less likely to rate their mental health as positive and more likely to report being diagnosed with mental health issues or to seek professional counselling.

There are also consistent differences between male and female executives. Female executives report higher levels of stress, higher absenteeism, higher incidence of harassment and generally have more trouble separating themselves from the demands of work, however they are also more satisfied with their pay and career prospects, rate their personal health higher, are more likely to fall into an acceptable BMI, sleep better and drink less than male executives.

In a context of rapid change, and expectations that they be agile and resilient, executives express a high level of uncertainty that we are well positioned to respond to future demands with respect to the use of technology and social media, the recruitment and retention of talent, adapting our workplace environment to a new context, and building a strong, capable leadership team.

Spotlights

Given the findings of this survey, and insight gained through our ongoing engagement with Executives, four areas surface as critical in moving forward:

Managing Talent and Leadership Development
– How can we balance the needs of the community, the centre, and senior management in an integrative approach to managing talent?
– What does a robust continuum of leadership development for Executives look like?

Healthy Workplaces
– What are the workplace conditions that position organizations for success?
– How do we move our organizations there?

Healthy Executives
– What is the prescription for taking care of ourselves in the midst of a high demands and expectations?

Culture
– How can we improve the work environment to facilitate innovation, creativity and agility?

What’s next?

The survey results were the beginning of a conversation to lead to concrete actions.

Since the release of the Survey results in early 2018, APEX has lead or participated in over 50 events, engaging more than 1,700 executives in considering the results of the survey. Whether they were focused on overall results or specific action, discussions point to recurring themes and priorities for APEX around: compensation, talent management, healthy workplaces, executive health, and the critical role of leaders in setting a workplace culture. Thank you to all Executives who contributed questions, ideas or suggestions through this process.

Acting on the results is a shared endeavour…
– Deputy heads of organizations have received the results and, in some cases, have identified a departmental community champion and specific areas of focus;
– many departments and agencies are considering the results in planning actions to build healthy, rewarding workplaces; and,
– Executives are looking at the role they play and action they can take in response to the survey findings.

The Survey results have already influenced APEX work. For example:
– the 2018 Symposium included the theme of Mindful and Compassionate Leadership – strengthening skills around creating respectful workplaces;
– APEX regularly contributes to the New Directors program at the Canada School of the Public Service, to discuss the importance of health in the context of becoming a new executive;
– we are working with OCHRO to capture Executive input as to how to evolve the talent management system to more fully meet the needs of executives – the first step will be seeking specific input from Executives, and others, as to their expectations for the system;
– we are working on developing a series of learning events for the fall that will delve into some of the issues raised through the survey.

Get involved! If you have any ideas, suggestions or thoughts to add, please contact Ann-Marie Julien (consultations@apex.gc.ca) to be part of the conversation.

 

Executive Summary and Dashboard
Summary Presentation
Questions and Answers
Questionnaire

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