Putting in long hours at work? Then you’ve got plenty of company. Nearly 1.7 million Australian employees – that’s about one in six – work 49 hours or more each week, the latest census showed. Nearly half a million of those were managers – the occupation with biggest proportion working very long hours. But long hours weren’t restricted to white collar workers. One in four “machinery operators and drivers” and one in five “technicians and trades workers” worked more than 49 hours a week, the census showed.
The proportion of workers putting in very long hours is not ballooning as some might fear. The share of employees working more than 40 hours a week rose steadily in the 1980s and 1990s but peaked about a decade ago and has since edged lower. Back in 2000, about 10 per cent of workers put in more than 60 hours a week but that’s now drifted down to about 7 per cent.
Despite this, Australia still has a higher proportion of workers putting in long hours than other comparable countries. This emerged in the Better Life Index released on Tuesday which compared the 34 developed country members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Australia topped the overall rankings but performed poorly when it came to balancing work and life. The report also showed Australians devote less time each day to eating, sleeping and leisure (such as socialising, hobbies, games, computer and television use) than the OECD average.
Professor Barbara Pocock from the University of South Australia’s centre for work + life said structural change in the labour market has shifted perceptions of work hours.
“We’ve moved from the production line which imposes a natural discipline you’d knock off at five or go onto overtime. Now we’ve got a lot more professional and service sector jobs without the same time disciplines.”
Mobile technology is also reshaping work patterns.
“Often longer hours are explained by these enabling technologies,” Professor Pocock said.
Research has also revealed many workers spend time checking emails late at night or early in the morning in a bid to gain more control over their work days.
Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay said the growing acceptance of long work hours was taking a toll on the community.
“Long working hours contribute to our prosperity but if you are talking about the general well-being of a society and whether we are nurturing our relationships with family, friends and engaging with the life of the neighbourhood and community then you have to say that raises a bit of a doubt about Australia. “Too many of us are spending too much time at work at the expense of nurturing those relationships,” he said.
Research by the Diversity Council Australia shows most businesses have yet to truly embrace measures to improve work-life balance.
“Why on earth are we maintaining this culture of presentee-ism when every bit of research shows the positive impact of workplace flexibility?” asked Nareen Young, the council’s chief executive.
Grocer who puts in 91-hour week
Michael Jiang calculates that he spends 91 hours a week running his family’s Friendly Grocer store in Pyrmont.
That’s nearly double what most hard-working Australians put in.
Most days Mr Jiang, the owner, works 14½ hours. He is at the busy convenience store from when it opens at 8.30am to after it closes at 10.30pm each night.
”It’s just kind of non-stop,” he said. ”It’s not just about buying and selling, it’s about stock management – and managing people, too.”
His mother helps out at times, and the business, which operates every day, employs three others on three shifts throughout the day.
The son of Chinese migrants who moved from Shanghai in 2006, the only downtime Mr Jiang gets is sleeping in until 9.30am twice a week if business allows.
And work-life balance? He admits to feeling lucky that he lives only five minutes away from his store. That means he can dash home to cook dinner for his wife (she does the preparation while he does the cooking) and one-year-old son William.
When asked if he resents working so many hours, he said: ”That’s life.”
Mr Jiang said he is not unusual among his friends, many of whom are the offspring of recent Asian migrants who work two jobs and long hours trying to save a nest egg.
”I am trying to build a future for my family. I still don’t own a house, so I am saving for that and for my son William’s future.”
Catching up with friends is rare because he has so little time. ”We book two months in advance [to catch up],” he said.
with Julie Power