The 38 hour working week is in jeopardy for most of Australia’s workforce. Statistics from the ABS show that work is now encroaching on our private lives more than ever before. Instead of continually pushing ‘larrikinism’ as one of our defining traits, perhaps we should be framed as a nation of overworked (yet unproductive people) who are essentially slaves to our jobs and stuck in a work/eat/sleep cycle.
The statistics from the ABS report, ‘How Australians use their time', show that male and female adults in the work force are working approximately two hours more each week, than they were in 1997.
Unions NSW has recently put forward a claim for the paid working day to begin while in transit to work. Though the problem of long, unproductive commutes could be alleviated in this way, the balance between work and leisure becomes less even.
According to Dr Helen Masterman-Smith, sociology lecturer at Charles Sturt University, there is a situation of extremes: most employees are either working too many hours, or are underemployed.
“A standard full-time week (38 hours) does not apply for much of the working population today.”
She also adds that this affects all people, despite socio-economic status. “Higher paid workers are often working long hours,” says Dr Masterman-Smith. “And at the other end of the spectrum, low paid workers are struggling to strike a balance between a low hourly rate of pay and working sufficient hours to earn a decent living.”
Her statement is no truer than in the case of Nicole Gaudry, an ex-store manager of a retail giant which demanded she work for up to 48 hours each week, in and out of the store.
“I was coming home with paperwork, and not really helping my kids with their homework or spending quality time with them. I think it was actually less productive because I’d just think about how my family life was suffering and I felt that I wanted to blame work for it,” Nicole says. “By the end, I became bitter towards the work I had.”
The pressure and the time that she had to forfeit for work, eventually led her to leave the company and to search for another job where the hours allowed her to have real time away from work, making her more productive in her roles as a parent and as a professional.
Research by the Director of the Centre for Work + Life, Barbara Pockock, shows exactly this. The Centre investigates how work intersects with household, family, community and social life in Australia. What it has revealed is that we need a balance between the time spent doing work and the time we have for ourselves; otherwise health, relationships and time with children can all suffer.
Fifty Families, a report commissioned by the ACTU and co-written by Pockock, details the experiences of Frank - a man pushed beyond his limits. Forced to work 50-60 hour weeks for long periods, he was finally overwhelmed and broke down.
“I came in - and the kids were just playing …I told my wife off. Had a go at my kid and then realised I was just tearing the hair out of my head,” he states. “And it was all because I’d just had enough of it…I’d started to bring work home - mentally – for months before that.”
The sad part of the story is that despite his GP and psychiatrist warning his employer of his fragile state, it took a relapse for them to really take him seriously.
“I went into depression, and I ended up having the full-scale mental breakdown… I don’t think they know they are actually playing with people’s lives.”
In highlighting Frank’s story, however, it is important to note that different people can tolerate different workloads. Yet, current conditions are not only lowering productivity, but putting substantial mental and physical strain on workers and their families.
A national survey was taken by the Centre for Work + Life; with results further cementing the issues raised by Fifty Families. Research Fellow, Dr Pip Williams worked with Barbara Pockock on this study, and their findings showed that people who worked long hours were more likely to have poor work-life outcomes.
“Essentially, they felt pressed for time and felt that work interfered with their responsibilities and activities outside of work," says Pip. "A lack of time resources within the family can disadvantage children, their families and the wider community. Opportunities for social interaction within local communities are reduced when families are time poor.”
Clinical psychologist, Patricia Durning sees clients from the city and North Shore areas, and likens the work/life imbalance to overdrawing a bank account.
“Overloads on work lead to deficits, and when people keep on overdrawing, they go into debt. So when someone feels one hundred per cent, but puts in one hundred and ten percent, where does that extra ten per cent come from? Once a person keeps putting in more than they can handle, they can start to develop some serious mental health issues.”
There are many misconceptions which occur in the workplace to fuel the overworking of employees, as Dr Durning has encountered in her role.
“I see clients, like young lawyers, who feel a lot of pressure to work long hours because everyone is doing them," says Patricia. "There are perceptions that everyone is doing fine, and that they look like they’ve got it together, but they really don’t. As a result, people come to see me, stressed and feeling alone, and this lack of support impacts upon their mental health.”
Research Director for Unions NSW, Amanda Tattersall, says that the Industrial Relations system needs to consider the strain that an unbalanced work/life ratio has on workers.
“Work time is a serious problem that needs a total rethink in the industrial relations reforms that the Rudd Government is contemplating. Providing workers with space away from work is a vital ingredient in an industrial relations system for the 21st century.”
With pressures mounting on employees to invest more time into their work as a sign of their commitment, the focus should be on increasing productivity through balancing work and life. Until this is understood and appreciated by employers and employees alike, there will be some form of neglect both at home and at work.
Essentially, there is no quick fix to this widespread issue, but all work and no play really does make Jack a dull and unproductive boy.