Are we working harder or smarter? Either way you look at it, Australians are putting in the hours. But do the hours pay off, and for whom? Deborah Tarrant reports.
Elizabeth George, a researcher in organisational behaviour at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), poses a pertinent question: Do many of us actually know how many hours we work these days? Think about it.
If you worked in an office yesterday, then typically you’ll count the hours spent in the work environment, but what about the time you spent at home after dinner with the laptop? What about the business call you took on the way to the gym; the business breakfast you attended; or the message you tapped out on the BlackBerry as you waited for the lights to change?
Australians put in longer hours at work than almost any other nation, according to recent research from the International Labour Organisation. An increasing proportion of the country is working very long hours. Around 20 per cent of Australia’s full-time employees are on the job for at least 50 hours each week, substantially boosting the overtime total from previous research that showed 40 per cent of us putting in more than the standard 38 hours a week.
Whatever happened to the land of the long weekend and that computerised world of increased leisure time?
It globalised and intensified to the point where the boundaries between work and home have blurred almost imperceptibly. Work/life balance may be the mantra of the 21st century, but fewer of us are achieving the equilibrium.
Experts cite the consequences of longer working hours as being reduced productivity, high levels of burn out and staff turnover, increased injury and stress claims, and the breakdown of relationships and family life. Ironically, the upshot of working long hours is often counterproductive, confirms Associate Professor Ron Callus, Director of the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT).
(Incidentally, Australians are not alone for dedication to the job. US and New Zealand workers clocked in almost equal time, with 28 per cent of Japanese workers putting in 49 hours or more weekly.)
To grapple with the issue we need to understand what’s driving the seemingly inexorable blow-out.
Those putting in increasingly longer hours fall into two groups: low-paid workers who rely on second jobs or payment for extra hours to boost wages, along with a substantial and growing number of professional and managerial workers whose long hours constitute unpaid overtime, points out Dr Iain Campbell of Melbourne’s RMIT University in a new paper exploring the working hours issue.
Long hours feature in both private and public sectors, but most particularly in finance, property and business services, mining, and construction.
Big forces are at work. The main cause is the ascendency of shareholder value, which has increased pressure to meet short-term financial goals, coupled with the huge hangover from the downsizing of the 90s, which has increased not only the perceived threat of losing a job, but also workloads.
Organisations have de-layered but still aim for similar outputs with fewer people, explains Associate Professor Richard Hall of Sydney University’s Economics faculty. Employer focus is on getting the maximum value for each labour unit. And, in the process, the nexus between pay and hours worked has been broken. More frequently people are paid for performance or getting the job done.
It’s not just the structure of organisations but the way people are working within them that’s changed. Teamwork generates longer working hours. For all its positives improved motivation and quality of work being part of a team and being rewarded as a team means sticking around to do a fair share of work. The great Australian adage about not letting the team down comes into play, says Hall, who also points out that the notion of working smarter, not harder simply won’t translate to every job or situation.
Studies show a raft of reasons people give for working longer: commitment to the job and colleagues, desire for promotion, supervisory pressure, the need to complete workloads, and to keep customers satisfied.
However, when given a choice, evidence suggests some wouldn’t opt for the time investment. In 2003, when insurance group IAG offered a group of 3500 employees a pay rise to increase from 35 to 37 hours a week, many rejected the offer, choosing an extra 30 minutes a day free time over earning more money.
Sectors like advertising and finance perpetuate cultures where working long hours is seen as glamorous, suggests ACIRRT’s Callus. People feel they have to stay back because everyone else does, he says. If you go early, you may be ‘a slacker’, so employees wear long hours like a badge of honour. The hero is the last person to leave the building or whoever’s car is in the car park for the longest time.
Lawyers are so renowned for extraordinary hours that several years ago the Law Society of NSW encouraged work/life balance with a get a life campaign. Horror stories abound of lawyers working 24-hour stretches and often on weekends. A partner at Allens Arthur Robinson recently caused ripples among peers and in the media when, explaining how the firm had scooped two client choice awards, he highlighted their dedication with comments like You don’t say ‘Sorry, I can’t do it, I’m playing cricket on the weekend’. You don’t have a right to any free time. He claimed most partners worked at the weekend on client files or non-billable work relevant to the firm.
Allen’s National Staff Partner, Ross Drinnan, says long hours are a matter of professional responsibility. People here put in long hours because they want to be doing the best work in town, argues Drinnan, a litigator. Workloads fluctuate. When there’s a big case, hours are longer by necessity. In very exceptional circumstances, he admits, he’s worked all night, drawing the analogy with surgeons dealing with a car crash emergency. Sometimes you just have to do it.
Overall, however, there’s no record showing an increase in hours. For the past decade, average billable hours of work have sat consistently at 1300 1500 annually.
Flexibility may be the trade-off for longer working hours but it has brought with it infinite workloads, argue human resources executives and academics in unison.
It’s a paradox of much professional and managerial work: that workers who seem to possess the highest degree of autonomy seem under most pressure to work long hours, says RMIT’s Dr Campbell. There’s discretion over the way in which they do their work (and when), but they have little discretion over the workloads themselves.
The new mantra is: I don’t care when you work, just get the work done, agree the experts. So in this 24/7, wireless world, technology has at once liberated and ensnared us.
Which brings us to a further question from the AGSM’s Elizabeth George: Could it be that people just feel as though they are working all the time these days? she asks.
The people factor
Not everybody is doing it. Ryan O’Hare, founder of fast-growing People Telecom, says his 130 employees (evenly divided between sales and technical) are not putting in long hours and the company rarely pays overtime. Sometimes we offer incentives to people to stay back and do extra work, but most people are able to get their job done in fairly standard hours. With remote access, it’s possible they’re doing more than I know, but I’ve never heard anyone complain.
O’Hare sees the correlation between stretched working hours and levels of resourcing, a factor that might have been an issue for a four-year-old start-up business in a highly competitive sector. You have to be able to support enough staff. Occasionally a crack appears. We’re in the process of restaffing our call centre now, he says.
Another important factor is having the right people in the right jobs, O’Hare believes. There are instances where people are not under employer pressure to work long hours, but [under pressure] from themselves, he says.
The secret seems to be in the leadership. As O’Hare says: I wouldn’t expect people to work ridiculous hours. I never work on weekends.
The culture at Unilever’s Australian operations is in step with contemporary corporate thinking on working hours. We take a very relaxed perspective. We expect people to deliver the output, but we’re not focused on when and how they do it, reports Human Resources Director Geoff McDonald, referring to the non-unionised segment of the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company’s workforce of about 1200 across Australia and New Zealand .
Flexibility is the key, with some working mothers putting in three and four-day weeks. Due to the ability to work remotely, it’s possible some managers may be working seven days. I don’t know because we don’t police it, he says. But I know people are working hard. It’s a two-way arrangement, as McDonald points out, so in hourly terms he has no idea whether employees are over or underworking.
With the pressures to drive down costs pushing the need to do more with less, and the skills shortage, McDonald says he can’t realistically foresee a reduction in time spent at work.
With a move to Australia after a five-year stint for Unilever in London, he’s managed to pare his own working week back from 70 to an estimated 60 hours. Does he mind these working hours? I love what I do, he says, tipping a likely upshot of these long working days will prompt a career trend in down-trading to less onerous roles sooner.
We think a lot about the time our employees spend at work, says David Kindl, General Manager of Retail Operations for the fashion group Noni B. His father, Alan, company founder and Managing Director, instructs his largely 40-plus female employees, to make sure they put their families first. With this demographic, if you tried to compete with their families, you’d come off second, quips David.
Despite the presence of a national enterprise agreement covering the workers on the floors of their 178 stores nationally, the management still tries hard to accommodate individual needs, moving employees geographically when requested and giving time off for personal reasons. On busy retail Saturdays, people are rostered to enable them to watch their children play sport. The company is repaid with loyalty and low staff turnover, says David. Retail shop opening hours are dictated by shopping centre proprietors, with the longest stint being the Thursday 9am 9pm, but no one within Noni B has to work this stretch. Extra hours are easily covered by casuals and part-timers.
On the management front, the top-down culture for flexibility and family first prevails. The ethos for the 21st century has to be about efficiency and working smarter, David believes. There’s a sense if you’re not still there at 10pm then you mustn’t be trying.
In larger companies where the competition to stand out is tougher, the person who goes home at 5pm is probably not going to get the promotion, admits David who worked for eight years at Lend Lease before joining the family business. But the contribution of people who don’t make an effort to achieve work/life balance definitely falls off, he observes. If they say it doesn’t, that’s rubbish!.
Working hours managing the downside
A report, Extended working hours in Australia – Counting the Cost , commissioned by the Queensland Department of Industrial Relations revealed that recent labour market statistics from the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training at Sydney University [ACIRRT] indicate that about three in every 10 Australian employees are working extended hours. Of this group, about one third are working between 45 and 50 hours per week; one third between 50 and 60 hours per week; and the remaining third greater than 60 hours per week. When compared with other OECD countries, Australia now has the distinction of having more people working more hours than all other member countries except the US . The authors argue that for many Australian workers, their families, and communities, extended working hours have lead to increased levels of fatigue and decreased levels of social support. This, in turn, has the potential to compromise safety and the long-term health and wellbeing of workers and the organisations that employ them. A body of evidence addressing hours of work indicates that we are fast approaching, or may have already passed, the point of diminishing returns in many industries. This is particularly relevant for those working significantly more than 50 hours per week.