Their story is far from atypical. After nearly a year caring for her two young children, the young mother felt that she was losing touch with her career. She returned to the workplace to discover that raising children and - like her husband - meeting demanding work commitments destroyed any sense of a work-life balance. Like so many young families juggling workplace demands, family commitments, unreal housing prices and rising home loan interest rates, the income she earned was welcome. However it came at a personal and familial price. Household stress has replaced what was a more or less calm family life.
Work: How it dominates our lives
It provides the income necessary for participation in consumer society while giving us a sense of identity and self-image. But take a look at the reality and you find conditions which make it extremely difficult to enjoy a rightful balance of home and work life.
In part, this is because working life in modern societies has come to be dominated by the ideology of the so-called “free market”. Increasing competition in national and global markets is powering the drive to longer working hours while also creating a greater sense of employment insecurity. Workers are expendable when it comes to restructuring business to deal with changing economic conditions. Uncertainty, a sense of job insecurity and anxiety are the result of the new working conditions. In these circumstances, is it any wonder that the idea of having an agreeable balance between work, family and personal life is difficult to achieve?
The availability of such a balance varies throughout the workforce and some have achieved it by choosing to focus on their careers. These are the young singles and childless couples for whom today’s workplace culture of long, usually unpaid working hours is just part of the sacrifice - a condition that must be accepted as part of climbing the corporate ladder. On the other side are the stressed families suffering because of those same long hours. Today's extended workday is welcomed by some just as it is accepted, perhaps reluctantly, and resented by many.
Long hours are just part of work conditions
Work for many Australians is immensely rewarding and, say psychologists, necessary to our mental wellbeing and sense of participation in society. That is why people unemployed for a long time lose their self-esteem and sense of worth. But for others, work is one of the most trying experiences in life and one that when the stresses become too great, threatens the families it otherwise supports. It is also something that a few have too much of and many too little access to.
When Australian Financial Review journalists Catherine Fox and Helen Trinca started to research the world of contemporary Australian work for their book Better Than Sex, they found a workday world that marginalised family and community and encouraged unpaid overtime. Seemingly, such things would be anathema to Australians, yet they are not so for a sizeable portion of the working public. Many workers readily accept the extension of the working week and it is more or less expected for middle management in the private sector. Acceptance implies a downgrading of the value of family and personal life.
Corporate middle management was squeezed and jobs were lost in the 1990s as corporations cut costs and made the structural changes necessary to remain competitive in an increasingly globalised marketplace. Those that survived the shakeout now find themselves with increased workloads, a development that has spurred the corporate culture of long hours. This move towards increased working hours is now seeping into other strata of the workforce. A recent attempt by a business group to treat weekend work the same as weekday work represents the type of narrow economic focus that is likely to further degrade the work-life balance. It was rejected by the NSW government.
Make no mistake about it - donating longer hours to the corporation brings a sense of self-worth, self-concept and self-image to many who closely identify with their work. Others who gladly accept long hours may be socially isolated individuals who lack a fulfilling home life while, for some, the workplace and the social relationships that develop there constitute the sum of their social life.
For the rest, the culture of long-hours consumes time that could otherwise be spent with friends and family or quietly relaxing at home. Those extra hours at the office mean missed opportunities for eating out with friends, missed interaction with children and spouse, and missed time with a good book. Yes, more time at work is the enemy of reading for pleasure or study.
Balance important to challenge of changing population
Canberra might have paid the usual lip-service to work and home life, but the issue is increasingly relevant to Australian society and a dialogue about is necessary despite federal indifference.
April this year brought denials from the Federal Treasurer Peter Costello that the Government was considering raising the retirement age for men. And just a couple years ago Canberra was talking up the idea of retaining mature workers in the workforce longer, this time on a voluntary basis. Nothing concrete came of this, in part because mature workers already have difficulty in obtaining employment. But were older workers somehow to be retained in the workforce, then the issue of work-home balance would be renewed, albeit from a different perspective to working families.
The other national issue relevant to achieving a work-life balance is that of an ageing population. The push for families to embark on parenthood will be for nought without a sustained and decisive federal campaign that truly addresses the work-life balance and the associated taxation and child care issues. Excessive workplace demands work against population growth and harnessing the experience, knowledge and productivity of the mature age workforce.
Long unpaid hours of work are little more than a subsidy to the corporation. But now the issue of work-life balance is moving up the political agenda. It is being pushed there not only by the usual suspect - the trade union movement - but by increasingly stressed workers and their families who fear that any further change in workplace conditions will worsen their already shaky balance. In the end, and perhaps with a different government in Canberra, the solution may have to be the setting of maximum hours of work.