Grappling with the time bomb of Australia’s work, rest and play

The idea of Australia as a laidback nation of beach dwellers and BBQ aficionados no longer stacks up. Asbestos Bill/Flickr

In a country where our households are giving more time to paid work, the issue of how we spend our time – and the amount we give to work and with what effect – is of growing significance.

This is what we found when, after five years of asking Australians about their working lives, my co-authors and I sat down to write a book. The issue of time jumped off the page – the time we give to work; the way that time sends us home; our time for rest, sleep and holidays; the way teenagers spend their time; the time we have to change our environmental behaviours and; the time we have (or lack) for education, contemplation and fun.

The experience of working time is very different for men and women. While a large portion of Australian women work part-time (many more than in most OECD countries), most men work full-time and a growing proportion work much more than full-time. Far from the land of the laid-back worker and the long weekend, Australia ranks sixth out of 28 countries in terms of the average hours worked by full-timers.

Australian full-timers work shorter hours on average than South Korea and Turkey, but two hours a week longer than Germans, almost three more than the French and five more than most Nordic countries.

Almost a third of Australian workers are working 45 hours of more – among them, half of fathers of preschoolers. We want fathers to play a greater role in the care of their children and households (and many want to do this), and long hours are an important part of the story about why this isn’t happening.

Most of those who work long hours would like to work less, even after taking account of what this would do to their pay packets. Over the past 20 or so years, the long hours genii has jumped out of the bottle and international studies tell us that this is likely to be having an effect on our public health and safety bill, and the costs of our health system.

But, the work-and-time story is not just about the hours we work. It’s also about whether we can take a holiday; the level of flexibility we have at work; the growing length of our commute; the impact on the care we can give our children and aging friends and relatives; and the time squeeze affecting our ability to participate in education and training.

Many Australian workers don’t take their annual leave in the year that they accumulate it, for instance, some because they are saving it up for a longer break but many because the pressures of work mean they struggle to take leave.

Others – like many of the one-in-four employees who are now casual workers – don’t have an entitlement to a paid holidays even though they work all year round because their casual leave loading doesn’t stretch to a holiday. Or, they can’t afford to refuse shifts to take a break.

So the idea of Australia as a laidback nation of beach dwellers and BBQ aficionados no longer stacks up. Instead, our leaders exhort us to work harder, to give more to the workplace and to stay at work longer over the life-cycle – well into what used to be retirement.

Once, we worked to live and work was the means to a sustainable existence rather than an end in itself – not any more.

With almost half of our labour force now made up of women (and not much change in the gendered pattern of domestic work, with women, on average, doing twice as much as men), the effect of working hard on our households is very different to when the male breadwinner/female carer household was the dominate type.

With two people heading out to work in the morning, and growth in sole mother-workers, there’s a real time squeeze for those putting together two kinds of time: the predictable clock of the workplace with the unpredictable demands of natural time – the clock of care, nurturing, the body and the household.

These clocks of work and care don’t keep the same time. And the flexibility revolution, which can help with the clock wrangle, has barely touched many workplaces.

In other cases, it has meant the flexibility to turn on the laptop at night when the kids are in bed. New technologies can help put together conflicting clocks, but they also enable greedy jobs to spill out into care time, squeezing sleep, rest and recreation.

The notion of work-life balance is an inadequate metaphor for this complex world of conflicting times. The idea of the clever, organised individual, who holds it all together, ignores the social and structural factors that truly shape whether balance is achievable.

Australia needs good labour law and effective management to control runaway hours where they occur, and to ensure employees get enough sleep and holidays so that our workplaces are productive and safe, and our households healthy and sustainable.

Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner & Philippa Williams’ new book, Time Bomb: Work, Rest and Play in Australia Today was launched on Monday by the South Australian Premier. It can be ordered here.