Living to work or working to live?

By Leith van Onselen

The internet and modern technology are wonderful. They allow fast dissemination of information, break down barriers to business and social interaction (this site is a perfect example), and can enhance overall productivity and living standards by lowering costs and raising output.

But there is also a dark side, an example of which is being on-call 24 hours a day to answer work emails and queries. Anyone that has ever been employed by a multinational company will know what I am talking about. You know, those late late night hook-ups or emails from Hong Kong, London, or the United States that are so “important” that they must be answered now, rather than at a less intrusive time, say between 8.30am and 5pm.

Workforce burnout and the 24-hour work cycle is an important often-overlooked subject that received some much needed attention from ABC’s The Business last night, which questioned whether working longer than traditional hours and being on-call 24 hours a day is actually good for business, given that it is driving rates of depression upwards and costing business an alledged $10 billion dollars a year. The main cause, according to the segment, is over zealous CEOs and management, who tend to be on massive salaries and work long hours themselves pushing work and high expectations down the line to lower paid employees. It’s a “cowboy culture” that is making some workplaces a prison.

One wonders how business ever got along before internet and low-cost telecommunications, when employees worked a standard eight hour work day and actually enjoying their free time.

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Unconventional Economist
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  1. Been there….

    Try working for any of the large multinational outsourcers/systems integrators. Sales problems are automatically turned into delivery problems, execs meet their revenue targets and never have to pick up those pieces.

    I have seen project managers use the implicit and explicit threat of a ‘bad review’ against those who have forced to work 60-100 hours in the past week and would like to book that time against the project code (in accordance with company policy). Instead they are forced to book only 8 hours/day to keep the project margins ‘healthy’.

    The multinational SIs love employing 457s as those visa holders have no choice but to suck it up to the detriment of everything else life related.

    • And what about working when on unpaid leave. If you don’t do it, which means working without being paid, you are the next to be sacked. Nice, isn’t it?

  2. Yep, I work in one of those workplaces. A couple of managers have turned the screws on me & my response has been the same – “Get Stuffed”. Adverse review be damned, go elevate the issue if you have to.

    No way am I joining those with Blackberry’s (or is it ‘Blackberries’?) welded to their faces.

  3. This is a really interesting field of study.

    Years ago I wrote a submission to the working hours test case brought on by the ACTU, for an organisation which had people in exceptionally remote locations, where they could only be got to for specific periods of the year, and in those specific periods it was necessary to have operations running 24/7 with an often small body of people (mainly men). We rejected the Union line – because being seen to remotely agree with it was politically a nono (which was hard limits on consecutive hours worked, and steep penalty rates) but we did do our own tests on on alertness working hours and the like (including working from home in a sort of semi on call state), and we had a lot of workplace psychologists feed into our response to the issue.

    What we came up with was that…..

    ..almost anyone has a far diminished output after about 4-5 hours of concentrating on the same thing.

    ..almost anyone has a far diminished output when they are ‘ambiently’ on the same thing (intermittently) over about the same period (which was a surprise for the many psychs involved)

    ..almost anyone working in such a context tended to have incidences of mania or depression pervade their working state were far more likely to adopt and commit to ill defined working relationships which involved a lot of on call or out of hours work than women

    ..where women did take to the practices they tended to be women who had ‘masculinized’ their approach to work and tended to be significantly more career orientated than the norm.

    At that time I was responsible for either saying yay or nay to all requests for working from home (it was in the days when most people had only dial up access – so there wasnt a huge demand for it and the insurance issues we needed to address meant that it was rarely ever adopted) and in the few circs where we did say yay (mainly IT guys fixing peoples computers from home or graphic artists doing projects at home) we found that home would only be a more productive environment where there werent family responsibilities, and that a large part of the improved productivity when they were working from home was directly attributable that they tended to work a far larger span of hours when working from home (despite the fact that productivity per hour tended to decrease after about 4-5 hours the same as everyone else)

  4. DelraiserMEMBER

    Helpful as usual……

    You’ll find most people work through necessity, not choice, and very few jobs these days give you the kind of work life balance that was enjoyed 30-40 years ago. Severe indebtedness to place a roof over ones head being the primary driver these days.

    The problem is that many employers know this and exploit that necessity. Many also exploit the integrity of their employees who often go above and beyond simply because they don’t want whatever they are working on to fail.

    In my office no one has been paid OT for about 6 years; we understand that this is a choice, but there is an implied expectation that we work 12 hour days, simply because that is what our GM does and expects us all to do the same. Leaving at 5 tends to raise eyebrows, so few do it.

    And btw, unless you have vast experience in the PS, I will put you last comment down to being poorly informed.

    • I agree that management have their workers over a financial barrel at the moment.

      After working in the public service (or variants of) for over 10 years I moved to a big 4 firm – but only after I had paid off the house.

      It infuriated the Partners no end that they had no financial leverage over me. I did the work, met my utilisation and budget targets and was out there most days just doing the regular 9-5 hours.

      I left after a couple of years to go back to public service because I get more job satisfaction doing things for my country (I joined the Army at 17 and did that for 7 years too) than what any monetary reward for screwing it over could provide. I too was pretty annoyed with that (now deleted) comment.

      • Mining BoganMEMBER

        Australian management only know how to exploit those that need the job. They have no idea how to handle those who can afford to leave whenever they’ve had enough of putting up with the combative attitude.

        The old saying that there is nothing more dangerous than a man who doesn’t care rings true to all management types in this country.

    • Presenteeism is a cancer…

      Ruthless exploitation of those who will endeavor to do the ‘right’ thing is the norm.

      What are the solutions?
      Abolish the payment of fixed salaries for those earning under say $1m per year?

    • Is blogging a part of the job?

      Because if it is not, you can stay after 8 hours working day as long as you wish and blog as long as it is interesting for you.

    • Unfortunately my original comment was deleted. We have an unwritten rule ‘no PS or ex PS’ based on experience in regard to competency and ability to handle a little stress.

      I maintain the program failed to connect work life to depression (I am sure there is a plethora of reasons some chemical for developing depression) and was a bit light on.

      Some love the cut and thrust or corporate life, relish involvement in major campaigns and projects, gladly giving themselves over 24/7 and good luck to them – this is a natural high.

      Different strokes for different folks.

      • “…We have an unwritten rule ‘no PS or ex PS’ based on experience in regard to competency and ability to handle a little stress…”

        Interestingly enough the ‘experience’ of Qantas and Ansett where they started off from exactly the same point when they finally were allowed to compete. Qantas, full of ex PS people prevailed. Of course, as the ex PS types left the airline and were replaced by private sector types, the share price, dividend and profits have tanked. Employing private sector types has worked well here. Haha.

        And let’s not mention Telstra.

        I see the mining industry with a long long record of misjudging their own industry cycle – building mines during booms, only to have that extra capacity come on stream during the next bust. Not to mention the likes of BHP and Olympic Dam where the project ended up being canned because they forgot to check if the technology worked…oops. Perhaps it might have been better for people to work under a little less stress by planning a bit better.

        I think any employer that took on a miner in any management position requiring planning ability would need to have rocks in their head. Of course, those who are stupid can compensate by working longer hours and taking on more stress. But would it not be better in the first place to get the mining cycle right, build before the next boom and not have to work as hard in the first place. Not to mention higher profits for shareholders. It is not that there have not been plenty of booms and busts before, so that ignorance of such cycles is forgivable. Basically, Australian miners are just stupid – always building during booms and supplying into gluts.

        The ex public sector types in the Commonwealth Bank. Have they done any worse than the private sector types?

        I suspect that you are confusing number of hours worked with actual profitable output. Having worked in both the private and public sectors, I can say that it is the individual’s ability and attention to the job at hand that is important…not where they have or have not worked.

      • oh cringe 3d…. top tier consulting has the same view of corporate plods.

        And then the guys with the money just find the whole thing hilarious.

  5. working from home only makes sense when you dont’t have much to do (in which case its better to be out playing golf than sitting in an office twiddling your thumbs).

  6. The world would be a better place if we could agree on a sensible population size, and cap it at that. That is to say Zero population growth.

    This would allow our infrastructure and utilities to be built around a specific and measurable need. Same with agriculture and (almost) all production. Simplify the way things are done (taxes, policy etc) — sure having vast service industries built around the complexity and inefficiency of the system produces employment opportunities, but if instead we only had all the useful jobs that need to be done (added value) spread around the entire population we could have full employment, with everyone working less hours.

    Like socialism it would probably work better in theory, but if it were possible it would be awesome.

    • What impact on infrastructure would a declining population have? Underutilised but still requires maintenance, yet the tax base has both been contracting and requiring higher funding for health care and pensions?

  7. I have only shown my face at the office twice this week as the rest of it i worked from home. I work in IT and spend all day working on stuff on the side of the world with people i never meet face to face so who cares if im at home or work.

  8. The last few decades have witnessed an epic fall in productivity. Whereas one man used to support a wife and 4 kids and obtain a decent house, now man and wife must work to support a smaller family (and often live in a dogbox). The main cause of this loss is that government has become much bigger and bossier. We have the “luxury” of out of control regulation and, now, employ so many people to do nothing but impose regulation, supervise its implementation, or to be part of the implementation.

    The solution is to charge/tax land and charge/tax other natural resources and divide the take between essential government services and all the people. That’s right – you get paid money for nothing – nothing other than foregoing your claim on that share of natural resource.
    Once every citizen is collecting a healthy welfare payment via the natural resources user-pays scheme, they will be in a much better position to negotiate pay and conditions for doing actual work. Some will choose not to work at all, others will perform charity or do hobby-work that pays nothing. Others might choose to work 40,60 or 80 hours a week.

  9. This is a great topic – Gittins has occasionally tried to give this an economic angle.

    Everyone has a different view and it seems quite personal but the two key things i’ve noticed are:

    1. Most people have more freedom than they could possibly imagine, they just let other people set their goals (both on stuff and financial); and

    2. Money is worthless without time – you’re only wealthy if you have money AND the time to use it well. Most execs are really just well paid slaves. (and no just taking a short holiday and blowing cash on expensive dinners/tours (in a kind of tragic childlike relativity) does not count as using it)