Boxed in: The stifling effects of short-term contracts

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

by WALLACE IMMEN: From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

Stella described the stress of always working on short-term contracts as a temporary teacher at a community college: “I feel like I’m trapped in a cycle of uncertainty, a cycle of anxiety.”

Philip, who works on short contracts with a community agency, said: “I feel financially and emotionally vulnerable.”

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And Valdez, a financial analyst dependent on temporary contracts, described her employers this way: “They are not responsible for anything that happens to me. If I am sick, they don’t pay me, it’s my responsibility. If they don’t want me any more, they just tell me, ‘We don’t need you any more.’”

The three workers are among 3,000 Canadians in short-term jobs who described their experiences in a new study about the stresses of having to regularly find new work.

“It’s not a healthy way to live,” concluded McMaster University professor Wayne Lewchuk, co-author of the study which became the basis for a new book, Working Without Commitments: the Health Effects of Precarious Employment.

But precarious employment is a growing trend. At least 1.8 million Canadians – or one in eight in the labour force – are in temporary work, including contract, seasonal or casual jobs with terms no more than a year, according to a Statistics Canada report last November.

In most cases, these short-term jobs are interspersed with periods of unemployment.

Temp hiring became a rapidly growing trend after 1997, as cost-conscious employers hired more people on short-term arrangements, invariably with lower pay and fewer benefits than permanent employees. Hiring of all types dropped during the recession, but the ranks of contract workers still increased by about 4 per cent between 2005 and 2009, Statscan reported.

The trend is unlikely to reverse despite the economic recovery, because competitive pressures are leading employers to hold off on long-term commitments and save money by hiring short-term employees, said Prof. Lewchuk, who teaches in McMaster’s School of Labour Studies and the Department of Economics. His co-researchers were Marlea Clarke, who was a postdoctoral fellow and is now an assistant professor at the University of Victoria; and Vancouver community researcher Alice de Wolff.

Their study concluded that over a long period, such precarious employment status can become a health hazard to both workers and their families. “We found a pattern of people complaining of work-related headaches, problems sleeping and fatigue,” Prof. Lewchuk said.

“There is also constant stress in not knowing what happens after your contract ends and having to be on your game all the time to try to prove you are worthy of renewal. There are no guarantees and the employer does not have to give any reasons to terminate you at the end of the contract,” he said.

“All this stress adds up, and the positions typically don’t include benefits. If you get sick, you don’t get paid,” he added.

The study also found that other sources of continued tension are the way that contract workers are perceived by many employers and permanent staff. “Your co-workers don’t feel you are part of their community and you always feel like an outsider and may not be invited to lunch or the office barbecue. The lack of commitment works both ways; employees often don’t feel committed to their job or employer.”

Despite the potential health issues facing so many people in the temporary-job cycle, Canada has not addressed the issues the way some other countries are doing, said Prof. Lewchuk, who also reviewed studies of contract workers in Australia, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.

“It has become a new employment norm in many countries. We’re not talking just about secretarial help. We are talking information technology, teaching, health care, graphic design and manufacturing and construction. There is no industry that has escaped it,” he said.

“It has become so prevalent in Denmark that the country’s labour laws were rewritten to include more support for people who need income bridging between contracts and retraining,” he added. “Denmark spends three times more per capita than in Canada. Government surveys there show that workers in unpredictable jobs are much happier there than in North America and other parts of Europe.”

Prof. Lewchuk said Canada needs to do more to protect workers from the health and social consequences of that instability. “It can be done, but at the moment, we’re not debating that issue very much in North America, and so we’re not doing much about it.”

One immediate need that can be addressed is providing counselling to help workers negotiate the job market as they move between jobs, he said. “Traditional career counselling is based on getting into jobs and having a 20-year career path. No one HR department is going to be able to provide this, but companies, industry sectors, cities or provinces should be offering more advice on what jobs and training are available.”


There can be many down sides to prolonged bouts of contract work:

Scheduling uncertainty: Not being able to commit to personal activities because you’re not sure when you will be called in for work.

Scattered demands: Working in a succession of temporary roles, for multiple employers and having to arrange logistics

Lack of identity: Not knowing where you will be in a few months can be wearing on your self-esteem.

Constant reinvention: It can take tremendous effort to keep researching and networking to find either another contract role or something more permanent.

Lack of support in workplace: It is difficult to fit into a work scene if people know you are going to leave soon. Some may even find contract workers a threat to their permanent jobs.

Uneven cash flow: Gaps between jobs mean many people have to tap savings.

Problems at home: The pressures may spill over into squabbles with spouse or family members.

Lack of a safety net: Temp and contract jobs don’t typically come with benefits or a pension.

Source: Working Without Commitments


Make your desires known

Don’t simply accept a temporary contract without discussing your desire to turn it into a permanent position, Toronto-based career adviser Colleen Clarke says. Employers may not recognize your enthusiasm.

Increase your value

If you don’t seem to be able to get employers interested in a stronger commitment, find out what kind of retraining you might need to qualify for another type of position that comes with more stability.

Rewrite your résumé

Describing the type of work functions you have done at previous jobs, rather than dates of employment, will make it less obvious that your previous positions were contract or temp assignments. Put years, not months, on your résumé for the time frame of the job.

Raise your profile

If you’re working on a contract in a company, network within that firm to raise your visibility so you’ll hear about full-time positions as they come available in other departments, Ms. Clarke says.

Look for financial benefits

As a contractor, you may be able to register as a business and have write-offs against expenses.

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