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Landscaper burnout: How to maintain a healthy balance between work and home


March 28, 2011
By Mike Jiggens


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LANDSCAPER burnout can be a serious issue among those working in the
industry, often resulting in strained family relations, declining
physical and mental health, and a significant impact to the company’s
bottom line.
It is therefore important for landscapers to strike that important
balance between their jobs and their home lives in order to avoid the
potential pitfalls which are often a consequence of job burnout.

Sheila James, a farm safety consultant with Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, addressed the matter in January at Landscape Ontario’s Congress in Toronto.stressweb

“The more I talk to landscapers about this, the more I’ve discovered it happens a lot,” she said. “A lot of landscapers just get so burned out. We’re working way too much. That other part of our life is out of balance.”

James said the issue of burnout is not unique to landscapers, but to Canadians in general. Survey information indicates about 80 per cent of gainfully-employed Canadians say their jobs are affecting their health, and 58 per cent are reporting overload.

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James recalled a landscaper she knew in the Ottawa Valley who had been complaining of dry eyes and other unusual symptoms. After being assessed by about 10 doctors who could not come up with a proper diagnosis, it was finally discovered the landscaper was having a nervous breakdown as a result of working too much.

She said it took the individual a lot of time, visits with a psychiatrist and anti-depression medication to finally emerge from his setback.

It’s not only the landscape contractors themselves who are prone to burnout, but their employees as well, she said, adding the costs involved with burnout can be astronomical if the right amount of attention isn’t paid to the situation. She said it costs Canadian workplaces about $12 billion per year as a result of workplace stress.

The main trigger for the amount of workplace stress and burnout is the current economic climate which has forced landscapers to work doubly hard to make a living. The extra time spent on the job, however, affects the landscaper’s home life, leaving him lesser time for such important matters as parenting.

“How do you restore that balance?” James asked, saying it was once believed the harder one worked, the more money he would make and the greater success he would achieve. “That doesn’t work.”

There are a number of ways a burned out landscaper or one experiencing the beginnings of stress can restore a healthy balance in his life, she said.

It begins with one’s physical health and the need to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. Another landscaper James knows once had some health issues and was frequently irritable. He decided to lose some weight and eat better, and ultimately made a positive lifestyle change. Part of the process included extending payment incentives to his employees if they went jogging at the end of each work day. The staff embraced the proposal, and everyone began to lose weight. A better attitude had developed among the staff, and the company began to realize lesser employee turnover. The strategy has continued for this company for about four years and has made a positive difference.

“That came from the boss guy who changed the culture of many,” James said.

The same landscaper also encouraged his employees to bring their own lunches from home and not rely on the foods available from the canteen truck, which generally aren’t as healthy, or from nearby fast food restaurants.

“I thought, what a nice change.”

An ailment which negatively affects one’s health is cancer, but James said she favours more emphasis devoted to its prevention than trying to find a cure. Landscapers need to step up their efforts toward cancer prevention to not only safeguard themselves against it, but their employees as well. A landscaper who shows an employee a 20-minute Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) video and then walks away, believing he has done his part to promote health and safety, has fallen well short of his responsibilities, she said.

James spoke of another landscaper who, at age 45, was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Several years ealier, he had worked with solvents, pouring them from one larger container into many smaller ones. One day he passed out while doing it. His oncologist listed a number of things he might have come in contact with during his past that might have led to the cancer. When the doctor reached “solvents” on the list, the cause was apparent.

“That’s why I say to you, let’s take this WHMIS thing quite seriously. You don’t want to be the cause of another worker’s suffering from cancer later on.”

There is a social aspect which has a bearing on one’s level of stress or burnout. James said a study which followed the lives of the graduating class at Harvard University from 50 years ago showed some became extremely successful and wealthy, but not all of them said they enjoyed their lives. Some became estranged to loved ones because they were indulging too much in alcohol and addictive lifestyles. Some graduates died prematurely and weren’t able to enjoy their wealth because they paid little attention to their health.

Other graduates in the study suggested they were happy, adding they found pleasure in helping to develop their staff and family members to broaden their individual talents. Those graduates said they were happier seeing others under their wing succeed than having great personal wealth.

The social aspect of a landscaper’s lifestyle also deals with relationships. James said she has dealt with many landscapers whose marriages have ended in divorce because their workloads are so great, they have little time remaining for their families or spouse. Sometimes, a landscaper’s children may grow up over a period of several years with little contact with their parent who soon finds himself completely out of touch with his children.

Even though the landscaping profession, by its seasonal nature, often demands long hours, “We still have to keep our family life in balance,” James said.

Many may become money-rich yet time-poor.

“Some landscapers just get so burned out because they work such long hours that it’s hard on their family life.”
But some landscapers have figured it out, she said.

Some in the profession who James has spent time with are hard workers, but are “spinning their wheels.” Others, though, have made an effort to enjoy quality time with their spouses.

“You have to spend quality time with your spouse if you want your spouse to stay.”

Many landscapers had told James they find it difficult to retain labour and that there’s a shortage of good workers while others have said they have managed to employ the same people for several years.

“They don’t have the revolving door of workers coming and going. They have workers that stay.”

James said she has made it a point to determine exactly why some landscapers can continually retain the same labour force while others can’t. One of the keys for staff retention, she learned, was the employer’s ability to coach his employees so that they could avoid mistakes. This doesn’t mean a constant nagging of the worker, telling him, “Don’t do it that way!”

“Coach them how not to make mistakes,” she said. “When they make mistakes, don’t call them a stupid idiot. You call them a stupid idiot one time, and they lose respect for you.”

James said an employee in that position will lack motivation and is likely to do a shabby job because he doesn’t care—all because he’s lost respect for his employer.

As important as being a good mentor to his staff is, it is just as vital for an employer to respect the opinions and decisions of his employees, James said, noting many have studied pertinent courses and have good ideas.

“Be open to their thoughts and respect their ideas.”

Workers should be praised at every deserving instance. James said some landscapers will reward their hard-working employees with a small token of appreciation such as a Tim Hortons card. She said a $5 card is a more appropriate gesture than simply handing over a $5 bill.

“That goes a long way,” she said, because the employer has taken note of his employee’s quality of work, and such a pat on the back results in a better work ethic on the part of the employee.

A landscaper must care for his staff’s well being, giving them time off from work to attend doctor’s appointments. James said the employee should never have to feel guilty or in trouble for taking the necessary time off from work to attend to his health needs.

Some landscapers have bonded with their employees and created a sense of team by having staff barbecues on a Friday afternoon. James said such a strategy goes a long way toward retaining good workers.

“They appreciate that. They want to have fun while they’re working.”

When a landscape contractor turns in a good year, it’s largely because his staff was instrumental in helping him get there.

“It’s not a bad idea to give your workers a bonus on those years,” James said. “If you treat your workers with respect, they will work harder for you. They’ll have less absenteeism. They’ll be less likely to steal from you. They’re more likely to stay with your company and are more likely to recommend to their friends that your workplace is a good place to work.”

Perhaps a landscape contractor’s greatest worry is his financial situation. He needs to know if he’s getting the most out of his money and if he’s properly managing debt. James said he should have a banker he can trust and will return his calls. It’s important for the landscaper to be aware of his financial position each month.
But he must keep his hand out of the till, she emphasized.

“When you have a good year, put some money aside because every seven years or so you will have a bad year.”

By keeping some money aside, it can be secured when in a pinch.

“Keep your hand out of the till and put some money aside for a rainy day.”

Maintaining a balanced life includes mental fitness, James said, suggesting educational conferences such as Congress allow landscapers to keep abreast of changing trends in the industry so that they’re not falling behind the competition.

Getting ample sleep at night can protect a landscaper against stress and forgetfulness. A vacation is usually the perfect solution to keep one’s head in the game and maintain a balanced life, she said.

A spiritual undertaking such as meditation will help a landscaper achieve a happy, calm and peaceful disposition, James said. One who is constantly worrying or is obsessed too much with something may soon develop physical symptoms.

“We have to learn how to control that worrying. We have to learn how to control our mind.”

The off-season, she said, is a perfect time for landscapers to make positive changes in their lives, she said.
“It takes courage, but, if you do make some of those changes, you can get your life back in balance where you want your life to be.”