Albertans are a hard working lot. But is that such a good thing?

BY TODD HIRSCH

On average, Albertans work among the very longest hours in the country.

Statistics Canada reported that in April those employed in the goods producing industries worked, on average, 38.7 hours a week. Employees in the service sector worked 29.4 hours a week, somewhat shorter due to the higher rates of part-time work in service sector occupations.

Among the other provinces in Canada, only in Newfoundland and Labrador do employees work longer hours. The recent boom in that province’s labour market has produced a lot of jobs, many of them probably requiring significant amounts of overtime due to a shortage of skilled workers. But even though workers in Canada’s easternmost province work longer, the rates of unemployment are much higher: 13% in Newfoundland compared to 4.6% in Alberta.

Overall, given the percentage of people working as well as the length of the average workweek, it is fair to call Alberta the hardest working province. But is that such a good thing? Certainly for the economy it is – at least in the short run. Labour shortages are gripping many parts of the province, especially in certain industries such as the skilled construction trades and workers in the energy industry. And judging by the rising rates of interprovincial in-migration to Alberta in recent months, Canadians are responding to the call. People move to Alberta to work, not to sit on the couch.

Still, we wear our busyness as a badge of honour – and that comes with a dark side. At a recent conference on social innovation, someone threw out an interesting question: “Is sitting the new smoking?” It drew a laugh from the audience, but the point was a good one.

Have we become so driven by work hours and being busy making money that it is no longer socially acceptable to just sit and think? Is a long stroll with the dog on a warm summer night no longer possible? Has the working lunch replaced a leisurely midday break in the park with nothing but sunglasses and a good book? When did daydreaming become a social pariah?

There is no lack of scientific studies proving the benefits of a mental and physical break. And in the longer run, the hard work ethic of Albertans could turn from an economic advantage to an economic problem. Working too hard can easily lead to burnout, work-related stress, domestic problems, physical deterioration and even long-term illness.

Research even shows that sitting and daydreaming is not a waste of time – in fact, far from it. The process of daydreaming is actually proven to boost creativity. The mind needs to relax and make random connections of thought in order to work properly. The point to this is certainly not to encourage laziness, but rather to draw a distinction between “lazy” and “recharging our mental batteries.”

Few Albertans can be accused of the former. But are enough Albertans engaging in the latter? The solution: Take a break. As simple as that sounds, it actually takes an enormous amount of discipline and determination to do it.

By law, employers must allow annual vacation time to its employees. Sadly, too many workers find the demands of their jobs so heavy that vacations are skipped. That’s a mistake. A good vacation and break from the routines of work is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

If you are one of the thousands of Albertans that wears the “Busy” badge of honour a little too proudly, show some determination this summer to take a break. Get out and enjoy the long days and warm weather. Sit by a lake. Sit in a park. Sit on a patio with friends. But sit. Put away the phone.

And when someone asks you how things are, say, “I’m not busy at all – and that’s great!”

Troy Media columnist Todd Hirsch is Senior Economist with ATB Financial. Visit www.troymedia.com.

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