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The BBQ-stopper that just keeps giving...or taking

By Josh Fear - posted Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It's now a decade since John Howard declared work-life balance to be a barbeque-stopper. Things haven't improved; if anything, the problem of overwork is getting worse. The steady creep of work onto weekends via mobile phones and email is no doubt responsible for preventing an increasing number of actual barbeques taking place, in addition to the metaphorical one referred to by Howard.

The ongoing imbalance between work and life is particularly pertinent as we head into the holiday season and look forward to time with family and friends. A survey conducted by The Australia Institute for this year's national Go Home On Time Day found that only one in five Australian workers are happy with the hours they work, with most of us expressing a desire to work less.

Long time, no see: the impact of time poverty on Australian workers reveals that half of all Australians are suffering from time pressure: the "modern malaise" of not having enough time to do all the things we need or want to do.


Time poverty can have a substantial impact on those experiencing it. One in two (50 per cent) of those surveyed, and 61 per cent of those working overtime, said they were prevented from spending as much time with family as they would have liked.

One in two, and 58 per cent of those working overtime, said work had stopped them doing physical exercise in the past week; work prevented one in three from eating healthy meals; while one in four reported being too busy to go to the doctor when they probably should. Other studies have linked long working hours and time pressure to lifestyle illnesses such as obesity, alcoholism and cardiovascular disease. When it comes to our health, it would appear that work gets in the way of both prevention and cure.

At first glance it is no surprise that people say they want to work less. However, survey respondents were asked to take into account the effect on their income when nominating how many hours they would prefer to work. This means that many people would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to work less.

While the survey findings might seem intuitive, they highlight that our "flexible" labour market has been unable to do one of its most straightforward tasks: to match people's preferences with the jobs that suit them.

For too long many employers (though of course not all) have been relying on an implicit subsidy from workers in the form of unpaid overtime. The value of the unpaid overtime worked in Australia is over $70 billion a year, or more than 6 per cent of GDP. For employers to insist that their staff work excessive hours simply because there is no other option is to admit to being unable to manage their human resources properly. It also may reflect a poor business model.

Of course, there will be periods of greater and lesser activity in any workplace, and workers are increasingly getting used to this version of "flexibility". But employers need to recognise that true flexibility is a two-way exchange, not an excuse to place unreasonable demands on staff.


Go Home On Time Day on November 24 is an opportunity to recognise the extent of overwork in Australia and the important workplace, health and social consequences it has. If, for one day in the year, we work only the hours we are paid for, then maybe it's just a little bit easier next time to do the same.

Go Home on Time Day also provides an opportunity for workers to discuss their working hours with their managers in a positive and non-threatening way. If the culture of a workplace insists that people work overtime as part of their job, then there is something wrong with that workplace - not the person who refuses to work overtime.

Of course, managers and business owners are more likely than anyone else to work excessive hours. Go Home on Time Day is an opportunity for everyone, including people in positions of responsibility, to spend some time on those things that are more important than work: family, friends, our health and general wellbeing.

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About the Author

Josh Fear is is Deputy Director of the Australia Institute, an independent public policy think tank based in Canberra. He is co-author (with Dr Richard Denniss) of Zero-Sum Game? The human dimensions of emissions trading, and Money and Power: The case for better regulation in banking.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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