You there, make sure you go home on time today (or why Australians do so much unpaid work)

Workers are finding it increasingly difficult to leave work on time or enjoy their free time. Flickr/Floris M. Oosterveld

Today is national Go Home on Time Day, the one day of the year that you can work the hours you are paid for and no more – without feeling guilty. Since The Australia Institute first declared Go Home on Time Day in 2009, hundreds of thousands of workers have taken part.

That working your proper hours is seen as radical by some is an indication that Australia’s addiction to work has gone too far and that something needs to give.

To be fair, many employers and managers around the country have embraced the idea, recognising that ultimately they could not do business without the goodwill and hard work of their staff.

It’s a simple gesture but one that could start a very constructive dialogue about work-life balance.

There’s no such thing as free time

Every good boss knows how important staff morale is to the functioning of any organisation and that staff retention helps the bottom line.

The Institute recently released a paper on what we have called “polluted time” – that is free time contaminated by work demands.

More precisely, polluted time is those periods in which work pressures or commitments prevent someone from enjoying or otherwise making the most of their non-work time.

Time can be polluted by needing to do work tasks outside of normal working hours, being on call to come into work if necessary, or simply thinking about work to the extent that affects the way free time is used or experienced.

Our survey results suggest that in a workforce of 11.4 million people, some 6.8 million workers experience some degree of time pollution in any given week, while 1.75 million workers regularly have their free time polluted by work demands.

Bending under the strain of flexible working

Being in the office can be stressful enough without taking the office home with you. Flickr/net_efekt

Polluted time is one of the many consequences of a labour market which has become increasingly “flexible” over the past few decades. All too often the benefits of such flexibility have flowed to employers, while employees see less flexibility than they would like.

In the modern, technology-driven work environment, it is now possible for managers to dictate what employees do when they are outside the workplace as well as in it. These new demands on workers’ down time represent a form of soft control over workers and a new frontier in unpaid overtime.

Previous research by The Australia Institute has shown that a substantial amount of the extra time that Australians spend working is unremunerated. Forty-five per cent of all Australian workers, and more than half of all full-time employees, work more hours than they are paid for on a typical workday.

In fact, Australians work more than two billion hours of unpaid overtime each year – three times as many hours as Australians volunteer to community organisations.

In 2009, employees forwent $72 billion in wages, equivalent to six per cent of GDP. This “free” labour that workers “give” to their employers every year is just one part of the costs associated with overwork for individuals and for the broader community.

Time poverty

Our other research published in 2010 documented the phenomenon of “time poverty” – the predicament of not having enough time to meet all your commitments and ambitions, despite being financially secure.

Only one in five Australian workers are working the number of hours they would prefer to work, even taking into account the effects on income of working different hours. Half of all workers would prefer to work fewer hours, while 29 per cent would prefer to work more.

Meanwhile, one in two Australian workers report that work prevented them from spending time with family and friends over the previous week, while a similar proportion report that work prevented them from doing physical exercise.

When you start to feel the work strain, there aren’t too many ways to cope. Flickr/programwitch

Time poverty has clear consequences both for physical health and for general wellbeing. Long working hours and time pressure have been linked to lifestyle illnesses such as obesity, alcoholism and cardiovascular disease, while anxiety disorders and depression can also be caused by job-related stress.

The technology paradox

Given this year’s theme – polluted time – we are asking workers and managers to consider the effects that new technology is having on free time.

In theory, technology is supposed to make workers more efficient and productive. In practice, it may in fact often do precisely the opposite.

Rather than workers using these new tools to do their jobs more effectively, they are now increasingly beholden to those very tools.

If this sounds familiar, there is something you can do about it. At least for one day in the year on Go Home on Time Day, leave the computer in the office, resist the urge to check your email, and if your phone rings think twice before answering it.

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