Balance of Priorities a Must for Safety

This archived article is from October 2003. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Working parents sometimes feel as if they are constantly juggling, trying to keep several balls in the air without letting one fall through the cracks.

Many Canadians are working longer and have more family responsibilities than they did 10 years ago. The 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study found that hours on the job have generally increased, as has the percentage of working Canadians with child care, elder care or both. Over the 1990s, companies downsized, right sized, restructured and globalized. This often led to job insecurity and heavier workloads. Unpaid overtime work has increased substantially since the previous work-life study in 1991.

In today's hectic world, it can be hard to juggle family and job priorities. A critical factor in this challenge is safety.

Think About Safety First

In July 2003, a tragedy that apparently resulted from a disrupted routine and simple forgetfulness shocked Canadians. A Montreal man parked to go to work, leaving his sleeping toddler strapped in her car seat with the windows up. Eight hours later, he returned to find the child dead in his hot car.

A month later, in mid-August, two toddlers died in a similar incident in New Jersey. At that time, the US group Kids and Cars said 35 American children had died so far in 2003 from being left in hot cars. According to Kids and Cars, half of the adults involved were successful working professionals.

Thinking about work can distract caring parents from the safety of their own children because the mind has to juggle its priorities. Our "working memory" deals with what is important here and now. It can hold related ideas more readily than disparate items. Psychologists suggest that thinking about a concern unrelated to the child can cause a parent to forget about a child - not because the child is less important, but rather due to the lack of connection.

Memory lapses happen all the time. One way to remember is to develop a routine. However, routines are sometimes broken, so they should build in reminders. For example, drivers who drop off a child at day care on the way to the office should plant a visual cue, such as the child's hat, in the front seat, or place a vital item such as a purse, briefcase or lunch in the back seat with the child.

Before and After School

Many couples arrange their work schedules to avoid arranging child care or leaving older children on their own. However, work schedules typically require parents to leave home before a child goes to school, or to come home after school is out.

The Canada Safety Council advises parents not to consider letting a child stay home alone until at least the age of 10. The parent must judge whether the child is ready to be alone or with siblings for a short time before or after school. Age alone does not determine whether a child is capable of being left alone. For example, unsupervised teens and pre-teens can sometimes get into more trouble than younger children.

Parents must put into place a structure that assures a safe and supervised environment even when there is no adult at home.

The Canada Safety Council's Web site offers guidance for working parents to prepare older children to be safe at home if an adult can't be there before or after school. CSC also publishes an activity booklet At Home on My Own for children 10 and over.

The Young, the Old and the Exhausted

In the 2001 National Work-Life Conflict Study, 70 per cent of employees surveyed were parents, 60 per cent had elder care, 13 per cent cared for a disabled relative, and 13 per cent had both child care and elder care responsibilities.

Alternative work arrangements such as flextime and telework can enable employees to look after the family. Some choose part time employment or job sharing as a way to balance their personal life with their work life.

According to the work-life conflict study, job demands have increased over the last decade. Those who travel on the job spend an average of more than three week nights per month away from home. To succeed - or just to keep their job — employees work long hours and take work home. With globalization, work hours stretch to cover time zones. Cutbacks and competition mean staffing is kept to a minimum to control costs. A lack of planning time leads to stressful and time-consuming crisis management.

Demanding schedules have led to changes in lifestyle. For instance, men are more involved in child rearing responsibilities than in the past, and share in elder care. Nonetheless, a day still has only 24 hours. More time spent on the job translates into less time for everything else, including family, chores, leisure and sleep.

People who go through life stressed-out and sleep-deprived pose a risk to themselves and others.

Safety Requires Concentration

The Canada Safety Council and TheSteelAlliance partner an annual driving survey. The 2003 finding suggest Canadian drivers are trying to fit more and more into a day, even if it jeopardizes their safety.

  • The number of drivers who admit to at least one act of aggressive driving over the past year has risen from 84 per cent in 1999 to 88 per cent in 2003. Stress is the main reason cited.
  • Over half drove while tired over the past year, including one out of 10 who admit to falling asleep behind the wheel.
  • A stunning 97 per cent of drivers in the 18 to 49 age group admit to multi-tasking while driving in the past year.

According to a 1999 study from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, drivers who hold more than one job, who get six hours or less of sleep a night or who drive between midnight and 6:00 a.m. are more likely to have a drowsy driving crash. About half of the drivers in sleep-related crashes said they did not feel drowsy before they crashed. One-quarter said they had driven while sleepy more than 10 times in the past year. The study concluded that anyone who does not get enough sleep on a regular basis is at risk, and that sleep-deprived drivers have a risk of crash comparable to drinking drivers.

A 1997 Australian study found performance impairments equivalent to a BAC of 0.05 after 17 to 19 hours without sleep. That study reinforced evidence that fatigue from sleep deprivation can compromise speed and accuracy needed for safety on the road and in industrial settings.

People who are fatigued, in a rush, or mentally focused on other issues or tasks create an unsafe environment. Tasks such as driving require concentration, alertness and physical co-ordination. Assuring safe performance of such tasks must enter into the work-life balance.

Players in the Balancing Act

Many employers know that a flexible, family-friendly workplace helps attract and keep talented workers. A workaholic culture is ultimately demoralizing, counter-productive and unsafe. Policies that enable employees to balance their non-job-related priorities with the job include offering alternative work arrangements and reducing travel and overtime.

Governments have a key role to play. They legislate employment standards, rights and responsibilities, workplace conditions and benefits. As well, they provide a means of redress for workers refused accommodation in terms of work-life balance. As employers, they can also provide a model for other employers.

The most important player in the work-life balancing act is the employee. Each individual must take personal responsibility to have a balanced life — to set personal priorities and act on them. Trade-offs may not be possible for some Canadians who struggle to make ends meet; for instance, cases where working two jobs barely pays the rent and groceries. Nonetheless, a survey released in August 2003 reports that one-third of employed Canadians do not even take their allotted vacation days, foregoing an average of eight vacation days a year.