Business, Finance & Economics

'Laid-back' Aussies? Think again

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MELBOURNE — What comes to mind when you think of Australia?

A relaxed, laidback lifestyle? The laconic Crocodile Dundee character? A place of endless barbeques, where the sun’s always shining and the beach always beckoning?

Think again. Recent studies have shown that Australia is a nation of strivers, not skivers (that's Aussie slang for "lazy"). They are among the most overworked people in the world, more at home behind a desk than catching a wave.

In a 23-country study, Australia ranked among the worst — alongside the U.S. and U.K. — in terms of long working hours, occupational stress and poor work-life balance. Since 1964, the average working week for white collar workers has gone up by more than 10 hours. Australian Bureau of Statistics data had shown that by 2007 almost a third of Australians worked unsocial hours. The average working week was 44 hours, with 35 percent of male full-time workers and 19 percent of full-time working women slaving away for 50 hours or more a week.

“Overall, the evidence is unambiguous: Australian full-time employees are working extremely long hours,” said Brigid van Wanrooy, lead researcher Workplace Research Center at the University of Sydney. “Full-time employees are working an average of 44 hours per week. In the international standards we've got some of the longest full-time working ours among the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.”

Many Australians worked even more than 44 hours per week, and nearly one in three wanted to reduce their hours. “One in five workers work more than 50 hours a week, so that equates to around 2 million people,” she said.

“The major difference between America and Australia (in working hours) is that America doesn’t have the same level of part-time work as we do," Van Wanrooy told GlobalPost. "So if you take our aggregate hours, it looks like Americans are working just as much as we are, if not more. But if we only look at full-timers, which is quite sensible when looking at long hours of work, we find that we are generally working longer hours — although the Americans, British and New Zealanders are up there too. "The common link between the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand and Australia is that we don’t have any real regulation of working hours which I believe is a major factor in the working hours problem. But obviously there are a whole range of factors that have led to long working hours, such as consumption patterns, competitive pressures and cultures that reward long hours.”

A typical example of an overworked Australian is Romi Patterson, a 38-year-old massage therapist. He works three days a week in his own business, and the other four days at a day spa that is more than an hour’s commute each way from his home.

He barely sees his wife, who manages a Melbourne restaurant and also works between six and seven days a week. “We cannot seem to schedule the same day off together,” he complains.

Not wanting to knock off extra work or shifts during uncertain economic times has led Patterson and his wife to overwork themselves to the point of exhaustion.

Patterson emigrated to Australia from England four years ago, and says he was attracted to the country’s laidback beach lifestyle. Now he admits he hasn’t visited a beach in three years — he is too busy working.

So entrenched is the workaholic culture that a major government-funded advertising and billboard campaign has been launched in Australia’s cities urging workers to take vacation.

Tourism Australia launched the "No Leave, No Life" program this year. They say Australians are so addicted to work that they have accrued 121 million days of annual leave which equates to about $31 billion dollars of unspent revenue.

Federal Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson told reporters here recently that too many Australian workers were not taking annual leave. “I scratch my head at times and wonder: why do employers allow that leave to accumulate?" he said. "Their liability goes up because wages and salaries go up … Employees who go on holiday spend quality time with their family and friends, they come back to work better workers."

But its hard for this nation of workaholics to get a better balance when the country’s leader, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a notorious overworker.

Since taking office in November 2007, he has become well-known for his punishing work ethic — pushing himself, and his workforce, well beyond traditional working hours.

He cancelled Christmas one year for his senior public servants, and staffers are regularly woken with 5 a.m. calls. His nickname is “Kevin 24/7.”

“The government needs to exercise leadership in combating the long hours worked by many Australian full-time employees," Van Wanrooy said. "Working hours in Australia have decreased when the government has taken a leading role in addressing the problem.”

Why are Australians so overworked?

Historically, Australia championed campaigns for reasonable working hours, and unions have traditionally enjoyed high support among workers. Yet since the 1980s, working hours have been steadily rising.

Van Wanrooy said that Australia has a culture of long hours among full-time employees due, in part, to the lack of enforceable regulation of working time. “Relying on the premise of ‘reasonableness’ continues Australia’s legacy of weak regulatory working time practices, which has led to some of the longest full-time hours among OECD countries.”

The overwork crisis has had ripple effects in many areas of Australian society. Childcare facilities are stretched as both parents juggle work and home life, while leading medical body, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), has warned about the rise in so-called lifestyle diseases resulting from overwork. These include an increase in high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and stress.

Churches, too, have weighed into the overwork debate — saying Australian’s long hours are eroding family and community life.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last year that one-third of the boarders at an elite school were weekday boarders, including the children of busy Sydney families, who worked hard and had to contend with worsening traffic.

William McKeith, who heads Presbyterian Ladies College at Croydon wrote on the Herald's opinon page: “When we adults are busy filling our days and nights with more and more work, where are all the children?” He urged a rethink on trends in working hours, where busy parents went a year without seeing their children, instead keeping in touch via the internet or phone calls. Since the global financial crisis, Australians’ working hours have dropped from their 2007 peak — yet experts believe that this drop in working hours has not been distributed evenly across the workforce. Instead, vulnerable workers in the lower-paid service sectors — such as retail or hospitality — are having their hours cut and are becoming financially stretched, while many white collar workers remain overworked.

Barbara Pocock, the director of the Center for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, said there was little evidence that employees already doing long hours were cutting back. “I think it is highly likely that in this economic environment it is people involuntarily accepting shorter hours,” she said. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 500,000 Australians stopped working long hours in the past year.

Pocock conducted a survey of working hours in March 2009 and said there had been no fall in the percentage, of men in particular, who spent long hours at work. Instead, it was manufacturing employees and retail and hospitality workers who were having to make do with fewer shifts.

It seems not even a economic crisis of the magnitude of this one is strong enough to erode Australian’s addiction to work.