The Guardian September 19, 2001


Fifty Families:
A report on unreasonable work hours

Suicide attempts, family breakdown and physical illness are just some of 
the effects that extreme working hours are having on families. The ACTU's 
current Reasonable Hours campaign for appropriate hours of work has been 
provided with powerful evidence of the devastating effect of excess work 
being forced onto Australia's workforce with the release of the report 
"Fifty Families".

The report, from Adelaide University's Centre for Labour Research, 
documents the impact of longer working hours on more than 50 families, and 
the negative effect on the individual workers, families and local 
communities.

The report's author Barbara Pocock said, "One of the most surprising 
aspects emerging from the research is the lack of control employees have 
over their hours of work and the low negotiating rights reported by many 
workers". Ms Pocock said many are not even being paid for the extra work.

Why?

Why do people work longer hours? Money is a major factor. "No one really 
likes doing seven days, but then you've got to look at the positive side of 
it. The money  what you do with the money." (Ada, electrician's partner)

Understaffing: "There just aren't enough people here to do the job 
anymore.""

The majority of workplaces in the study were effected in some way by two 
decades of workplace and industry restructuring. There are many accounts of 
fewer people doing more almost right across the board  manufacturing, 
construction, education, public service, postal, scientific, engineering, 
paramedical, health and airlines.

Job protection: Doing extra hours out of fear.

A significant group worked longer hours because they felt their "jobs were 
on the line" if they didn't agree to them. Others felt that their chances 
of promotion depended on their long hours of unpaid overtime, some having 
seen those who did not work overtime removed to undesirable jobs and 
sidelined.

The "choice" of long hours.

Many employees do not have the power to resist pressure to work long hours, 
whether that "requirement" is a direct request or arises  very commonly -
- in an indirect way as a result of staffing levels and/or client, student 
or patient expectations and needs.

Long hours and workplace power: "I feel powerless to say no."

Some workers described how long hours take them from loving their jobs to 
hating them. Some decide to "drop back" to lesser skilled jobs, and take 
demotions to try and cut their hours. They give up the use of their skills. 
Many did not see the rates of pay for working such hours as adequate 
compensation for their efforts.

Increasing expectations of unpaid hours: "Compulsory voluntary 
work".

For some, unpaid overtime has become an entrenched and non-voluntary part 
of work.

For example, work beyond the job description of their teaching role has 
always been an accepted aspect for teachers. The expectation comes from the 
school culture, and also from the teachers themselves who value this aspect 
of their work. Expectations surrounding unpaid "voluntary" work have 
increased.

A case history: working long hours under pressure  Frank's story

In Frank's case the factors forcing long hours are clearly exposed. Frank 
lives with his wife Bronwyn and they have young children. Frank has worked 
50-60 hour weeks for long periods. He is on a contract that annualises 
salary, building in his overtime. He is expected to exercise his own skills 
as well as supervise others.

"I used to spend an eight-hour day with the men, and then an hour before 
work and an hour after work of paperwork, so that was making it a nine-ten 
hour day five days a week, and a half a day Saturday, or all day Saturday. 
We were working extremely long hours, sometimes from six o'clock in the 
morning to eight o'clock at night.

"Often I wouldn't have my lunch break because if you did it would be a cup 
of coffee and a sandwich at your desk while you were doing more paperwork. 
And it just got progressively more and more and more, just keeping on 
adding to our jobs ... and then one morning ... bang!

"I actually went to work, and it was a really, really hot day and we had a 
seminar on health and safety for some reason. I got home about three 
o'clock in the afternoon, got away early, and I came in and I was really 
hot, really stinky, and my wife was on the phone with a friend. I came in 
and the kids were just playing  well, one was just born and the little 
bloke was just three and was playing, and I did my block.

"I told my wife off. Had a go at my kid and then realised I was just 
tearing my hair out of my head."

"And it was because I'd just had enough of it ... I'd started to bring work 
home  mentally  for months before that. Like on the weekend I'd come 
home from work on Saturday, or whatever it might be, and just lie in front 
of the TV and didn't want to talk to nobody, just wanted to be left alone. 
At night I'd be dreaming. Like, you'd be in bed and all you'd be doing is 
dreaming about work ...

"... I was virtually suffering from severe panic attacks ... during work, 
at home. I saw something which I thought wasn't right, it'd create this 
panic attack where I'd feel hot and sweaty, very, very nervous, or agitated 
and it might last 20 minutes to an hour or two hours. And it got to the 
point I saw a doctor about it and he wanted me to go on medication  anti-
depressants or whatever. I wasn't interested.

"But then that day when I came home and blasted my wife and had a go at my 
kid  my wife, she rang the doctor and made an appointment and sent me 
down. And I remember breaking down and crying and going into the doctor's 
surgery and telling him what was going on and he gave me time off work 
immediately ..."

Frank had a "very, very bad 8 to 12 months", including suicidal thoughts 
before being put on anti-depressant medication. Despite this severe 
experience, his employer shortly afterwards began asking Frank to extend 
his hours once more.

He asked management to have someone help with the workload and was told 
"no, no you just keep going the way you're going and we'll see what happens 

"The way I feel, and the way a lot of people feel, we're more or less used, 
put on the scrap heap and then put aside. And then the next person will 
just come along and take your place. They've got no life. They only live to 
work. They expect you to be like them. I look at it: I work so I can live. 
I work so I can enjoy myself, not live so that I can just continually go to 
work."

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