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How reducing penalty rates will affect workers’ health

There are reasons why people get paid more to work out of hours beyond the working week being a social construct. from www.shutterstock.com.au

How reducing penalty rates will affect workers’ health

Despite only being two weeks into an eight-week election campaign, penalty rates have already become a significant issue, with Labor so far refusing to guarantee it will keep Sunday penalty rates for hospitality and retail workers.

Penalty rates are often cast as a roadblock to business or employment but public health researchers see penalty rates as a deterrent against employing workers in ways that risk workers’ health.

Why penalty rates exist

If penalty rates are stopping bosses from employing people on Saturdays and Sundays, at night or for very long or unusual shifts, it’s worth reminding ourselves that was exactly what they were supposed to do. With unusual work patterns now becoming more common, penalty rates are needed now more than ever.

Let’s take the example of Saturday and Sunday work. What’s the difference between mowing the lawn and getting paid nought, or making coffees and getting paid time and a half? How does the body magically know “this is Sunday” let alone “this is work”?

A reasonable person could claim it is not possible for the body to tell the difference, and thus different consequences in terms of health are “just in one’s mind”. That reasonable person would be both right and wrong.

The way we conceptualise work is closely related to the impact it has on us. If we regard cleaning bathrooms as a noble art, or brain surgery as a meaningless drudge, then to some degree the damaging impact of cleaning would be found in surgery instead.

Additionally, the degree to which humans feel control over their work hours (as opposed to the “real” levels of control they have over their work hours) is a key predictor of health outcomes. An easy experiment: take a few friends in a car on a long and winding road, every so often changing drivers, and note who starts to feel car sick. It’s rarely the driver.

Our bodies can tell the difference between work and leisure. from www.shutterstock.com

Let’s bring this to the work arena. A large and well-conducted Hungarian study was able to predict heart disease by simply asking “how much can you influence what happens in your work group”. Of the work variables in this study “sense of control” was the single most powerful predictor of ischaemic heart disease in women, and not far behind for men.

So what is “in your head” is important, and what we find consistently is that blue collar workers not only are more likely to work hours they can’t control, but they feel less in control of other aspects of their work and life. It’s a perfect storm for serious long-term consequences such as heart disease. The greater wealth and education of white collar workers also buffers them from the damage that work does: you can buy back time (for example time spent washing the car or looking after the children) if you have the money.

Humans aren’t designed to work all the time

However it’s not all in the mind. There is something about the “working week” and “working day” that is not purely a social or cultural creation forged by unions, businesses and the church. We can observe circaseptal (seven day) rhythms and day-night rhythms at a cellular level, not just in humans, but also small animals who can’t read a clock or calendar.

There is enough evidence now for the World Health Organisation to state that tinkering with circadian clocks is “probably carcinogenic”, but there are other ways working time factors pose risks to your health. When time we would normally spend on self-care or even essentials like eating is lost, we buy it back in unhealthy ways – skipping exercise and buying fast food, for example.

Ironically, overwork or unusual hours – even working on weekends – makes us fat. The human body is not designed for constant work. In fact, the eight hour day and the five day week very roughly mark the boundaries at which humans can safely work. The risk of an occupational injury on a ten hour day for example, exceeds that of an eight hour day by 41%, while even higher increases in risk have been observed on the sixth and seventh day of consecutive work.

As a society, we’re working more Saturdays, more Sundays, more nights, and more unusual shifts than ever before, and one way or another, we’re paying penalties. Either businesses pay them in cash, individual workers pay with health, or society pays through health care.

One of the grandest experiments in working time took place in Soviet Russia, where weekends were, for a short while, eliminated, so the economic speed bump of the weekend was altogether removed. To quote from a history of the period, even after only a few months of this grand experiment:

Even official organs were already reporting slower work and worse service and attributing these to the continuous production week.

For researchers in the obscure field of working time, no surprises there.

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