The health of our public service executive cadre should matter not only to politicians but to all Canadians who want their governments to be managed effectively and to meet their goals efficiently.
The Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) cares about and actively promotes the health and wellbeing of federal public service executives.
Over the past 15 years, in collaboration with GAP-Santé of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Population Health, APEX has conducted a unique longitudinal study which has contributed to a better understanding of the importance of a healthy workplace, at both individual and organizational levels. APEX will soon publish the findings of its fourth Executive Work and Health Survey, modeled on the United Kingdom’s landmark Whitehall studies of civil service executive health.
The results will be of interest to other governments and are important for public service leaders at all levels.
Survey and respondents
A total of 2,314 (35%) federal executives completed the survey, which included questions related to workplace characteristics, social and interpersonal interactions, stress, individual physical and psychological health, and organizational outcomes. The results are statistically valid, with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percent, 99 times out of 100 and can be generalized to all federal public service executives.
Some aspects of individual health have improved since the last survey. Executives are drinking and smoking less; experiencing fewer respiratory diseases; working fewer hours (an average of 50.7 hours per week); travelling less frequently; and taking slightly more vacation leave. Conversely, chronic conditions such as musculoskeletal problems (likely due to the increased use of computers and other electronic devices) continue to rise, and nearly one in five executives was treated for heart disease and/or high blood pressure in the 12 months preceding the survey. Weight issues and sleep deficits are increasing.
Psychological stress scores are higher than those of 75% of the Canadian adult population. In the 12 months prior to the administration of the survey, 20.6% of executives sought professional counseling and 11% were diagnosed and treated for depression and anxiety disorders.
Overall work satisfaction remains constant. Increased concerns with job security and the achievement of career goals are offset by higher levels of satisfaction with pay, hours and workload. As was the case in past surveys, federal executives report having less control over their work than is the norm for executives and leaders.
Executives report an increased imbalance between effort and reward, which leads to stress, and eventually, to increased likelihood of illness. Social support from colleagues and supervisors is down significantly and verbal harassment remains a problem. Ten percent of respondents reported a disrespectful workplace and identified direct supervisors and superiors as the main source of disrespectful or uncivil behaviours.
The psychological work environment has a significant impact on health, and stress from current work practices is an important issue for both executives and the organizations they lead. The major risk factors determining individual and organizational health outcomes are closely intertwined. Executives are more likely to report better health outcomes and the achievement of organizational goals in jobs with reasonable demands, high intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, good social supports, decision-making latitude, and adequate resources.
The results of the latest APEX survey are in line with previous studies that emphasize the importance of creating healthy organizations to improve individual health outcomes and maximize organizational performance. To date, most of the federal public service’s health promotion efforts have been directed to the individual.
While it is important for individuals to continue to take personal care, lifestyle changes are not enough. What is needed is a systemic approach designed to eliminate or reduce the risk factors in the workplace that negatively affect personal health. Measures such as increased decision latitude and flexibility in work practices as well as changes in organizational culture can have a major positive effect on individual and organizational health and wellbeing.
APEX is consulting its members and stakeholders to validate its action plan to: build awareness of health problems and their causes; identify best practices; offer tools, expert resources, and advice to help executives and their organizations; promote government-wide measures to improve workplace health; and provide learning and professional development opportunities.
APEX will also use the survey results and feedback from members to contribute to discussions on Blueprint 2020, the Clerk of the Privy Council’s engagement on the future of the Public Service of Canada. Strategies to improve the health and wellbeing of executives will contribute to efforts to create a world-class federal public service.