Monday, December 07, 2009


Red News Readers,

Yes Workchoices is gone and the employers still rule because the unions are so disempowered. Workplace organisation seems to be a thing of the past. The Head Offices of unions are filled with careerists waiting for their seat in parliament. Those who do resist the modern working arrangements can end up losing career prospects or even their job. Whether you like unions or not, it was unionists of the past who fought for and won the 40 hour, and then the 38, and the 35 hour week,

Jenny Haines

Slaves to the overtime habit fail to loosen the shackles


December 7, 2009

Australians clock up 2 billion hours of overtime a year.

So it turns out we can't blame the boss. A nation of overworked desk zombies, we chain ourselves to the office chair.

The Australia Institute's Go Home on Time Day was recently embraced by tens of thousands of white collar workers as a collective action against the 2 billion hours in unpaid overtime Australians clock up each year.

But on the day, nearly half of the would-be protesters - lawyers, teachers, engineers, advertising whizzes, bankers, scientists and more - failed miserably in breaking the overtime habit.

Overwhelmingly, they said they could not leave on time because there was too much to do (68 per cent). But they also confessed they had gotten into ''the zone'', that something interesting had come along, that the meeting ran late, that the computer wasn't printing, that an important email popped up - or they forgot.

The raw email feedback sent to the institute by some of the 20,000 people who had tried to take part showed that most of them were acutely aware of how damaging the creeping ubiquity of unpaid overtime in the workplace can be. Emails oozed suffering and a longing for the lost 38-hour week.

People complained they didn't eat properly or pay their bills on time. There were repeated tales of husbands, wives and empty homes as couples ''influenced each other'' to work extreme hours.

One emailer lamented: ''If only one of us was home waiting for the other then we'd probably leave earlier, have time to make dinner properly, and do some exercise. But when you know that the other one might be happy to work until 7pm or 8pm and you don't have to worry about it, we create mutual bad habits.''

Another declared that working in a call centre was better than his current 70-hour-a-week salaried job, where he calculated he was probably working twice the hours he was paid for. ''I have no time for exercise and no time to see my friends, let alone spend time with my girlfriend. On my one day off I'm so tired I lie down all day at home . . . life sucks when there is no time to live it. I am a slave.''

Some were bleak: ''Unpaid overtime is the key reason for my depression. I wish I had a boss who would not think that leaving at 5.30pm is an early mark.''

And another: ''I manage to get quality sleep two nights per week - Friday and Saturday. I just want to run away and cry.'' Public servants grumbled that they, too, had a right to a life.

The entire country was in need of a culture shift, they chorused. A North American, shocked by our obsessive, long working hours, complained: ''I am exhausted. I moved to the southern hemisphere to slow down and relax. Obviously Australia was the wrong choice.'' But, surprisingly, fewer people directly blamed the boss for their inability to work a reasonable day than other factors, including their own martyrdom.

They said they worked longer for their own sanity - otherwise the work wouldn't get done. They said after-hours was a more productive time in the office because it was quieter. Or they wanted to be helpful.

One person was so used to working a 10-hour day ''that when I leave on time I feel like I'm actually cheating the company. I get the guilts.''

Other failed protesters said they stayed on simply because it felt odd to go home before dark.

Unless we really want to go home, the boss will never see the light.

From the thousands who did leave promptly, there were delighted reports of having rediscovered some of life's less pressing pleasures - playing with the kids, walking the dog, even household chores. ''I mowed the lawn. It was nice,'' said an emailer.

The NSW Business Chamber suggests workers may have the same approach to going home on time as the many people who sign up for a gym class each year - we know what's good for us, but never quite get there. (Or perhaps a nation of fat, stressed-out overworkers don't get to the gym because they're still at work.)

Curbing spiralling overtime could come down to refocusing on another kind of collective guilt.

Overworked martyrs rarely think of themselves as selfish or greedy - there is hardly a financial imperative when you are giving it all for free.

But if we are prepared to put up with the stresses long hours inflict on our own health and lifestyle, perhaps we should give more thought to the impact our seemingly diligent hard work is having on others: colleagues who feel compelled to stay if everyone else is, partners eating takeaway for one again, or the howling dog in the courtyard.

Kirsty Needham is a Herald journalist.

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