Many Australians believe we are a laid-back country where we tell ourselves we work to live and not the other way round. But statistics tell us something different. Apparently, apart from the Japanese and Koreans, Australians work some of the longest hours in the Western world. Australians work, on average, 44 hours a week compared to the average in developed countries of 41 hours—39 if you live in a place like Norway. The other startling fact is that we work a lot of that extra time for free, translated as unpaid overtime—two billion hours of unpaid overtime, adding up to a $72 billion gift to the economy.
At the same time, the growth in part-time and casual jobs has been rapid, with some workers gathering up part-time jobs simply to secure the equivalent of a full-time wage. Since the 1970s, average working hours have been on the rise after falling consistently since the beginning of the century. Broader social changes have contributed to the way paid work is allocated across the population. Women make up a greater proportion of the workforce than ever before and households often depend on two incomes. This adds to time pressures on families. The nature of work is evolving. Technology is playing a big part here, with mobiles and personal digital assistants ensuring some employees are still on the job when they are not at the job. There is no ignoring the pressure to respond on the spot, no matter what the time of day or where employees may be.
Work is encroaching on other aspects of life, and more often than is necessary. We do need enough time to keep healthy, exercise, relax, sleep and develop and maintain relationships—to maintain that elusive balanced lifestyle. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics study How Australians use their time shows Australians are spending less time playing, sleeping, eating and drinking than 10 years ago.
The Australia Institute recently undertook some work in this area and its findings should give many pause for thought. While some may argue that others choose to be income rich and time poor, the Australia Institute’s research has found that only one in five Australian workers are working the hours they want to work. In fact, half of all employees would like to work less, even taking into account the effect on their income. The Australia Institute research found that, while full-time people working long hours typically want to work less, there are millions of casual and part-time workers who would like to work more hours. It is argued that if some of the ‘surplus’ work hours could be reallocated to those who want more work, then progress could be made in addressing unemployment and underemployment.
It is worth considering the point that, just like a lack of income, the disappearance of free time may be another reflection of disadvantage in society. Additionally, I am concerned about the impact this has on health and wellbeing. Research shows excessive working hours can have detrimental effects on both physical and mental health, including obesity, alcoholism, cardiovascular problems and depression. If governments are serious about preventative health, then we need policies to promote reasonable working hours. I am conscious of the irony of delivering a speech on working hours at 10 minutes past 10 pm on a Monday night.
There must be more transparency about the culture of working hours in particular workplaces so that current and prospective employees can make informed decisions about whether a company is an employer of choice. It is only when someone begins working for a particular employer that they can assess whether that employer believes in work-life balance. Regular reporting of working hours expectations, actual working hours and staff satisfaction with working hours would allow people to make better decisions about who to work for, and also promote competition among employers to attract the best staff. In addition, governments should make work-life balance a priority through policy initiatives across a range of portfolio areas. Regular collection of data on actual versus preferred working hours, as well as various indicators of how well the labour market is matching people with the right hours, would help governments make better decisions in this regard.
In a couple of days time, on 24 November, the Australia Institute will hold National Go Home on Time Day. This initiative lets employees signal clearly that there are other parts of life, such as family and their own health, that are more important than work. People participating in Go Home on Time Day are advised simply to work only the hours they are paid for, whatever they may be, on 24 November. Of course I expect a reaction to this initiative—but that is exactly the point. If businesses are regularly hooked on the notion of extracting a certain level of unpaid work every week—at the potential personal expense of their employees—how is that good for business, our communities and our country? If this initiative sparks a conversation about working hours and helps get governments and industry thinking about addressing this issue, that cannot be a bad thing for families and our community.