The Nation’s Business Doesn’t Sleep…but you need to

2 minute read

By Stephen Van Dine, Senior Vice President – Public Governance


To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street, “(The nation’s) business never sleeps”.

Our local, provincial/territorial, Indigenous and federal governments are front and centre in the ongoing fight with Covid-19. At all levels of government, in the foreground and behind the scenes, thousands of public servants including the military and first responders are working around the clock. Like in other crises, public servants are on guard for thee.

Canadians who have chosen a career in the public service, know our communities face challenging times and circumstances.

However, unlike typical surprise events, which have an arc beginning with first responders, rescue/incident management, and then recovery, Covid-19 just keeps coming. To use a cliché, Covid-19 has gone into its zillionth overtime period.

We should be asking serious questions about the ability of all organizations and their people’s ability to sustain the current level of effort. As we head into the 10th month of the pandemic, and the New Year, we need to pay attention to our people. We need to avoid a ‘crash’ where entire business units fall offline due to burnout and or high turnover. Pockets of this can happen in (large) organizations, but rarely at a whole-of-enterprise level.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some business units actually thrived or re-energized. The mission transformed many less visible teams across government, including often-overlooked internal service members such as procurement, web specialists, IM/IT, accommodations, HR and Finance sections into local heroes supporting working from home for thousands of colleagues. For all public servants, adrenaline and recognition from above have fueled the mission to deliver visible results in uncertain times.

Adrenaline and recognition can be addictive and lead to unhealthy behaviours, unhealthy people, and unhealthy organizations. In small doses, these behaviours can help to overcome inertia and translate into higher performance, and even promotion and increased stature or influence. However, as Covid-19 continues, an overreliance on adrenaline and praise can undermine the sustainability of the pace of the mission.

Looking back, Easter, the May long weekend, and other holidays in the period from June to October, ‘breaks’ were just another workday (and night) as the ‘nation’s business’ did not stand still. As a socially isolated holiday season arrives, can we take time to unplug, uninterrupted, for 48 hrs? Or ideally longer?

Public servants cannot unplug at the same time. However, everyone should be able to get their unfettered 48 hours. Including executives.

For many, the question is how?

It starts at the top.

The top must set the tone. She or he must declare they will be taking 48 hrs (or more) of uninterrupted, unplugged time from this day to this day and that Mary or Mohamed will be in charge. When that boss returns, Mary or Mohamed take their 48 hr period and so on and so on. The top must both set the tone, and ensure everyone gets their turn at a break.

The awkward choices around who gets the 25th/26th of December or possibly New Year’s Eve, really are of no consequence during Covid-19.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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