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

Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) stand at a picket line outside Place du Portage in Gatineau, Que., on April 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) stand at a picket line outside Place du Portage in Gatineau, Que., on April 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

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.

The 2020 public service employees survey showed that 43 per cent 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 per cent give it a positive rating. Other findings included:

  • 44 per cent of workers at the Canada Border Services Agency feel their work suffers from “constantly changing priorities”

  • 56 per cent of employees at Women and Gender Equality Canada also 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 protester yells during a demonstration outside government buildings in Ottawa in September 2022 ahead of mediation for a collective agreement. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
A protester yells during a demonstration outside government buildings in Ottawa in September 2022 ahead of mediation for a collective agreement. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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.

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 well-being.

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.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.

It was written by: Eli Sopow, University Canada West.

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Eli Sopow does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.