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May Newsletter

Research Bulletin: Envisioning Healthy Living for Women,
Spring 2005, Volume 4, Number 2
Centre of Excellence for Women's Health

Women Working in Small Workplaces

Agnieszka Kosny, Institute for Work and Health, Department of Public Health Sciences and National Network on Environments and Women’s Health

One-third of Canadians are employed in workplaces with fewer than 20 employees. A 1996 report found that over 90% of businesses in Atlantic Canada were small workplaces. [1] With the encouragement of the provincial and local governments, small businesses are growing in the region and an increasing number of women are working in small workplaces. Most research on women’s occupational health in Newfoundland has focused on women in the fisheries industry and we know very little about women’s experiences in small workplaces or their work conditions. As well, when compared to larger companies, small workplaces have higher rates of injury and ill-health and often offer low pay, few benefits and job instability. [2]

This study was undertaken to explore women’s experiences in small workplaces in Newfoundland. In addition to examining how working in a small workplace affects women’s health and well-being, we also wanted to explore women’s perceptions of how the economic climate in Newfoundland affected the quality of their work life. We held nine focus groups in five communities across Newfoundland with a total of 60 women. In the focus groups, women were asked to describe their experiences in small workplaces in Newfoundland over the past 10 years. Women described the factors they perceived to influence their health, how their health and the health of their family connected to their paid work, and discussed different elements of their small workplace experiences (e.g., work load, policies and rules and physical environment). The participants ranged in age from 19 to 59 and had different levels of formal education. Twenty-four women were childless and 36 women had at least one child.

The participants highlighted many factors related to their work and the workplace that affected health and well-being. Four broad areas of discussion emerged from women’s descriptions of their experiences in small workplaces: the social organization of small workplaces, physical work environment, work relationships and the economic climate.

The Social Organization of Small Workplaces

Workplace organization affects hours of work, schedules, places of work and the kinds of tasks employees do. Women in this study described how the organization of small workplaces often created instability and insecurity and how most small workplaces had many commonalities in terms of unstable schedules, lack of job security, and lack of control over type and amount of work. A major concern for women was the instability of their work schedule. Many employers only gave a few hours notice when a schedule was changed. In some cases, employees did not have a schedule and women were called in when it was busy or sent home when it was not.

Employees in small workplaces often work alone and several women in this study described their experiences of loneliness and isolation and concerns regarding their safety. Women described how working alone often meant they did not have the opportunity to take a break or use the washroom.

Participants also described the challenges of taking time off in small workplaces. The women often did not have paid sick days and were reluctant to take time off for illness as it meant they would have extra work when they returned. In some situations, women felt pressure from their employer to work extra hours, while in other cases, women worked long hours in order to make ends meet on their low salaries. Women described how unpredictable schedules negatively affected family life and created problems with child care. Shift work, long hours or irregular hours resulted in sleep disturbances and insomnia for several of the women.

Generally, women in this study found that they did not have the opportunity to give input into the type of work they did or their working conditions. However, women identified non-profit organizations or community-based organizations as an exception to this pattern. Women working in these organizations found their work to be rewarding and found that these jobs tended to be more flexible. They also experienced different challenges, especially when an organization was suffering financially. They described how they often felt compelled to work, as there was a clear need for the work to be done in the community, or felt pressured to take on extra responsibilities outside of their job description.

Physical Work Environment

The physical environment that women worked in depended greatly on the type of work that women did. Women described a range of challenges and hazards they had experienced in their workplaces. They described a lack of control over heat, cold and air quality. Many women were exposed to second-hand smoke or experienced watery eyes, dry skin, headaches and coughing as a result of their work environment. Women also reported ergonomic stressors in their work environment that resulted in temporary discomfort or, in some cases, in lasting muscular damage requiring a brace or physiotherapy. Injuries resulting from inappropriately sized equipment or workstations, standing in one place for long periods of time without appropriate breaks and repetitive strain injuries were common in women’s stories.

Women in the study described a range of factors they felt contributed to their poor physical surroundings, including not enough financial resources, lack of concern about safety, lack of awareness of the problems and a lack of managerial skills to address acknowledged problems. Many of the women felt that working in a small workplace entailed working in hazardous conditions. One woman commented, “When you work with a non-profit organization [as compared] to working with a big company who has got bucks deluxe, you can totally see the difference in your physical workplace.”
Work Relationships

Co-worker relationships were mentioned in all of the groups as an important factor in their workplace environment. Several participants found that the small workplace environment allowed positive, close-knit relationships with employees to develop and this alleviated stress. However, conflict between co-workers was described as being “magnified” in small workplaces. “When there is an interpersonal problem, if you’re in a small workplace, it’s magnified; where, in a bigger workplace, it’s sometimes even a non-issue or you have other people to discuss the problem with. When there’s only two or three of you there and if the supervisor is being unreasonable…it’s very difficult to deal with the issue and it’s always right in your face – always.” Interacting with co-workers was unavoidable in a small environment and a lack of physical space often intensified the conflict. In these cases, co-workers became a major source of stress.

In the focus groups, several women reported not being aware of their rights as employees. In some cases when employees knew their rights were being violated, women experienced difficulties in “speaking up” against unfair practices. Women in this study reported fears of losing their job and felt their employers reminded them of how easily replaceable they were.
Economic Climate

Many women made links between the socio-economic environment in their communities and the quality of their work. Job insecurity was a major concern for the women, especially for women living outside of St. John’s. The women described the challenges of finding work in the community where they lived. Women in communities outside of St. John’s reported driving long distances to get to work and all of the women in the study would have preferred to work closer to home.

Small businesses often went through frequent economic shifts depending on the time of year and these changes influenced the number of employees hired, the number of shifts employees had, how often employees worked and their earnings. Several women described how high unemployment rates in Newfoundland affected their job stability. “…Because of the unemployment rate in Newfoundland, I’ve noticed the last few years…that nobody will speak up because there’s so many [people] out of work… There have been cases where your employer has said, ‘We got 300 applications for your job. You’re kind of lucky to get it.’”

The quality of women’s work environment is strongly related to the employer and type of workplace. However, this study raised several areas of concern around working in small workplaces, including the inadequacy of the physical workplace and a lack of workplace structure and job stability. This study contributes to our understanding of the relationship between the work environment and women’s mental and physical well-being. Although women in this study did raise concerns specific to women working in small workplaces (e.g., lack of recognition for unpaid work, safety, different employer expectations for men versus women and descriptions of working in highly sexualized environments such as bars and restaurants), resource limitations prevented us from fully exploring these areas and should be the focus of future research. While the women identified the influence of the economic climate on their ability to find quality employment, women also identified numerous challenges to speaking out about their concerns or initiating changes in the workplace. The findings of this study have policy implications, especially in the areas of labour standards development, adherence to the Occupational Health and Safety Act and EI regulations.

A copy of the full report, Trying to Work It Out: Newfoundland Women’s Experiences in Small Workplaces, can be downloaded at:, or contact:

National Network on Environments and Women’s Health
Centre for Health Studies
York University
4700 Keele Street
Suite 214 York Lanes
Toronto, ON Canada M3J 1P3
Tel: (416) 736-5941 Fax: (416) 736-5986
[email protected]


[1] Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. The State of Small Business and Entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada, 1996. Moncton: ACOA, 1996.

[2] Eakin J. The Health and Safety of Women in Small Workplaces. In Messing K, Neis B and Dumais L (Eds.). Invisible: Issues in Women’s Occupational Health. Charlottetown: Gynergy Books, 1995.

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