|Issue No 110||07 September 2001|
Long Hours Corrode Family Life Says Study
A new report commissioned by the ACTU paints a picture of hassled families, zombies at work and sex on the run - products of the long hours culture of the modern workplace.
The Fifty Families study - conducted by researchers at the Universities of Adelaide and Sydney - reveals that long hours are an entrenched and widespread experience at least in the 12 industry sectors researched.
The ACTU believes the report provides a strong argument for reining in unreasonable hours cultures and practices that injure healthy individuals, families and communities.
Many interviewees in the study feel that little real choice is attached to their hours. Some have tried to take control by changing jobs, going part-time, taking demotions or changing employers - and sometimes these strategies work. However, many feel that they have little power to control or reduce their long hours - hours that are increasingly entrenched in a culture of long working days across a range of Australian workplaces. These hours have created, de facto, a kind of new hours standard for many workers. They raise the 'hours bar' for all in some occupational groups or workplaces or industries that have been permeated by a new long hours culture.
A picture emerges from this study of long hours that feed off several factors. They arise from pursuit of money, understaffing, worker's commitment or love for the job, and fear of reprisal or loss of employment. They are embedded in the culture of some workplaces or occupations. Whatever their source, these hours then encroach upon the individual's life, health, family and community in ways that are corrosive.
Zombies at work are a health hazard
There were several accounts of life threatening events that occurred when fatigued workers were at work. These included doctors, paramedics and mining truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel, other vehicle accidents, horse riding falls, electricians that took dangerous 'shortcuts', a paramedic being pierced by a patient's needle, near misses on building sites. The partner of an engineer suggested that serious disasters like train accidents could be traced to the culture of long hours: 'the powers that be are not doing maintenance on the track, they're not giving their workers breaks, they're working them 7 days a week'. Doctors had concerns for patient safety and one pointed to prolonged operations because of declining productivity.
The 'over-time junkie' is an unhealthy person
Health concerns arising from long/unreasonable hours included physical effects like high blood pressure, long-term fatigue, constant tiredness, and poor sleeping patterns. Several interviewees listed depression as an outcome of their hours, along with moodiness, 'being grumpy' and being short tempered. A wide range of workers identified vulnerability to illness as an effect of long hours: doctors, postal workers, paramedics, teachers and flight attendants all felt that their immunity was compromised by tiredness.
Sex on the run
Almost all couples felt that long hours negatively affected their intimate relationships. Tiredness emerged as the enemy of intimacy, so that couples struggled for time and energy to talk, and to spend enjoyable time together. Many described their partners as grumpy and they approached them carefully, choosing their time to talk. 'Grumpiness', irritability, short tempers, and simple unavailability all contributed to a dearth of intimacy in many 'long hours' relationships. In some cases they simply spoiled relationships and had resulted in rocky marriages, and to marriage breakdowns. For some, the choice was between the marriage and their pattern of hours. Not surprisingly, the presence of tiredness, lack of time, occasional moodiness and the existence of some tension around hours in many households affected sexual intimacy. Some grabbed their chances when they came, with 'sex on the run' as one partner described her situation.
You are 'family' or you are 'worker': Mummy and Daddy tracks
This study affirms the widespread presence of the 'mummy track' for many women in this study who put their caring responsibilities squarely alongside their paid work. This track is a second-class career track, in that women drop back into lower status, lower paid jobs with poorer career prospects in order to secure conditions that accommodate their motherhood. Interestingly the study also found evidence of a 'daddy track' for men who refused to work long hours in workplaces that were frequently imbued with a long hours culture. Men who refused extra hours, tried to restrict their working week, asked to work part-time or refused promotion because of its implicit long hours, found themselves viewed with suspicion in their workplaces - or simply disbelieved.
Long hours: embedding systemic disadvantage for women
While there are examples of men in this study who take up the greater role at home, much more commonly women do so. As their domestic burden grows in support of their long hours partners, so does their labour market situation weaken. A growth in hours standards in some workplaces means that those with more responsibility for care - traditionally mothers and daughters - are increasingly unable to meet the standard of the 'long hours' workplace. Many drop back to part-time work, change jobs, or leave the labour market, as this study documents.
The effect on extended families
The time famine in long hours households had significant effects on the fabric of the extended family. Some workers felt that they did not see grandparents or grandchildren enough, and that they frequently missed family events. Further, many felt that their contact was built around asking for help - for childcare or other support. Some felt guilty that their hours, or those of their partner, precluded offering help to their extended families.
The effect on communities
Alongside the impact of diminished activity within the family, the extended family, sporting clubs and voluntary work, many families affected by unreasonable hours described a closing in of their social circle. Those with families found that much of their non-work time was spent together, or trying to be together. When asked about their friendships, several long hours workers said 'what friends?' and described how work commitments affected these. Others worked hard to maintain their community of friendships which they saw as invaluable to the maintenance of their life style: being able to easily call on neighbours when called to work, for example, relied on a good community of neighbours and friends.
Productivity and unreasonable hours
Unreasonable hours not only erode the social fabric of families and the communities in which they live, but many workers mentioned their impact upon productivity. Most long hours workers want to get their jobs done efficiently. There were however, many examples of negative impacts of long hours on productivity. Public service workers pointed to the impact of serious errors that arose when long hours were worked. Miners and paramedics recounted expensive - indeed, life threatening - events that occurred at the end of long shifts. Paramedics were concerned about the quality of their judgment in demanding emergency situations after they had worked for 14 hours through the night. Teachers explained the added difficulty of finding creative solutions to behavioural and teaching problems when very tired, and pointed out that recovering from a bad teaching choice was very time consuming - and frequently necessary - for tired teachers.
New technology and unreasonable hours
We have long lived with technologies that take work into the home and extend the working day beyond its formal and physical boundaries. However, for those working unreasonable hours, the expectation was that they were 'available' well beyond their already long hours. This was especially the case for highly skilled workers but it was not confined to them. A number mentioned the impact of mobile phones and email upon their patterns and hours of work.
What would help?
Many workers had comments to make about what would help them to work more reasonable hours. High on this list was the right - genuinely - to refuse hours that were unreasonable. Also high on the list was the issue of staffing. Improved staffing, some said, was the only way to see a reduction in unpaid leave especially in jobs - like health, teaching, postal work, public service - where 'it is the unpaid hours that get the job done', as at present. It is also important to challenge the stigma and secondary conditions and possibilities that attach to part-time work, to job sharing and to other workplace time strategies that allow workers to reduce their hours without 'trashing their conditions' as one put it.
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