More money for Canada’s public service workers won’t cure an unhappy workplace

By on 09/05/2023 | Updated on 09/05/2023
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) union reached a deal on pay and conditions on 1 May, ending a strike by 120,000 federal employees. Photo by terimakasih0 via Pixabay

Although striking Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers have reached a tentative deal with Canada’s federal government, the systemic workplace issues that create emotional stress, burnout and unhappy employees are still bubbling hot under the surface.

These issues have nothing to do with money. The culture and conditions of the federal government workplace are regularly shared via the Public Service Employee Survey that canvasses the opinions of more than 180,000 Canadian federal government employees in 87 federal departments.

Every two years, it asks almost 100 questions on topics ranging from leadership and management, workplace wellness factors and harassment.

Negative rankings

What do these in-depth surveys show? They routinely reveal that federal government employees rate the following workplace conditions as more negative than positive when it comes to workplace stress and the quality of their work:

  • Too many approval stages
  • Constantly changing priorities
  • Unreasonable deadlines
  • High staff turnover
  • Lack of stability in my department
  • Overly complicated or unnecessary business processes
  • Unreliable technology
  • Having to do the same or more work, but with fewer resources

That’s just a partial list, and some departments are far worse than others.

Read more: Canadian public service strike ends as deal reached over pay

The 2020 public service employees survey showed that 43% of employees at Public Safety Canada, the place tasked with protecting Canadians from harm and danger, give a negative rating to “too many approval stages” while only 27% give it a positive rating. Other findings included:

  • 44% of workers at the Canada Border Services Agency feel their work suffers from “constantly changing priorities”
  • 56% of employees at Women and Gender Equality Canada say their work suffers because of “constantly changing priorities”

A mountain of peer-reviewed research draws a strong correlation between the stressors cited in the Public Service Employee Survey to depression, lack of motivation, poor decision-making and poor performance and motivation.

A failing grade

For years, the Public Service Employee Survey has regularly revealed that the federal government is failing when it comes to workplace emotional wellness.

Too many approval stages and unreasonable deadlines consistently rank high in many departments. The survey also indicates an “inability to manage change” is a significant problem in several departments, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Correctional Services Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This is troublesome.

The new contract agreement for federal government workers is heavily focused on an extrinsic motivator — namely, money. This is understandable as workers may be struggling to make ends meet in a time of uncertain interest rates, bouncing inflation and high housing costs.

Read more: Letter from Ottawa: Strikes and other storm clouds are on the horizon for Canada’s public service

Extrinsic motivation is defined as being motivated by money and other external factors such as “expected reward, expected evaluation, competition, surveillance, time limits, and external control over task engagement”. Intrinsic motivation is generally described as more a psychological state that involves a sense of self-determination that can enhance confidence and emotional wellbeing.

Creating a happier workplace

It is often said that “money can’t buy happiness”. Perhaps.

But the federal government will clearly not deal with what the Public Service Employee Survey consistently shows could buy happiness, or at least emotional wellness, in the workplace.

The government should tackle the long list of failing workplace factors associated with efficiency and effectiveness so that employees stop feeling as though their concerns are ignored or disregarded.

Will an increase in wages make federal government employees happier and more efficient while administering key services related to immigration, taxation, public safety and a multitude of other daily and often frustrating issues? It’s unlikely.

That’s because without a priority on intrinsic motivators — including the ability to work from home and all the psychological benefits that presents — very little will have changed when federal government workers fill out the next Public Service Employee Survey.

Eli Sopow is associate professor at the MBA faculty of leadership & people management, University Canada West.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About Eli Sopow

Eli Sopow is associate professor at the MBA faculty of leadership & people management, University Canada West.

One Comment

  1. M says:

    Too many mangers bully and micromanage. They make the job miserable. Work from home helps deal with toxic controlling micromanaging managers who negatively affect the mental health of those who work under them.
    When employees speak up, they are afraid of reprisal. The managers will target an employee on their PMA’s and make the employee either find another position or leave.
    All for them to receive their bonuses at the expense of the mental health of those under them.
    I would rather work from home than a pay raise just for the simple fact that my mental health and well-being is way more important than a 3% raise.
    I am way more productive at home than in the office. I enjoy my job and I enjoy the work I do. Some managers do not need to be in the positions that they are in. If you have a high functioning, productive worker, that is able to to meet deadlines and targets, why do they need to be managed? We are not toddlers. We are adults.

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