Recent research suggests that many Australian workplaces have entrenched work overload cultures, with globalisation, multi-tasking and PDAs pushing employees to achieve even more each hour. In the UK, workload is the most pervasive factor linked to work-related stress and stress related injuries to employees – and has been found to be the costliest of all work-related illnesses in terms of days lost per case.[i]
The recent case of McDonald v State of South Australia  SASC 134 (21 May 2008) involved a culture of overwork that caused workplace injury, and amounted to a breach of contract. The complainant was a teacher who suffered stress caused by harassment and victimisation superimposed upon an excessive workload and poor role definition. The court considered the obligation to provide a safe place of work and found that Mr McDonald’s stress was due to an excessive workload, which included work for which he had never been trained.
In light of this, what might be a sensible approach to employee workload?
In this newsletter, we firstly look at the research, and then suggest some practical tips for employers wishing to avoid an excessive workload culture.
High Workload Cultures – The Research
The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (“OECD”) reports that in 2006, Australian full-time workers had the highest average number of total hours worked per week of all OECD countries.[ii] Australian full-timers worked an average of 43.4 hours, followed by employees in New Zealand (43.1 hrs), the United Kingdom (42.2 hrs), Poland (42.1 hrs), and the United States (41.7 hrs).
Many Australian employees report dissatisfaction about the amount of time they spend at work. A recent survey of professionals and managers by Dr Linda Duxbury and Dr Chris Higgins found that almost half (42%) of those surveyed reported high levels of work overload. Of the large sample of employees who participated in the survey, the majority (69%) extended their work day and worked from home into evenings and weekends. The gravitational pull of work meant workers in the sample were 3.6 times more likely to give priority to their work role than to their family role. The study reported increased levels of absenteeism due to physical, mental or emotional fatigue, decreased commitment to their job and their organisation, indicating that a high workload culture may be counterproductive. Employees also reported they were choosing to have smaller families or delaying starting a family to cope.[iii]
Even the professional services industries were not immune. In a review of the legal profession, researchers discovered an exhausting workplace culture in some larger Australian law firms. They found that “solicitors are caught up in a system that appears remarkably hostile to employee choice and employee-oriented flexibility”.[iv]
Outside the legal and management sectors, a study of randomly selected workers by The Centre for Work + Life found that “poor work–life outcomes also show a clear relationship to (self-reported) physical, mental and social well-being. Men and women with the worst work–life outcomes report poorer health, more use of prescription medications, more stress, and more dissatisfaction with their close personal relationships”.[v] Those who opted for flexible work arrangements such as part-time work in fact were not as well protected from “work-to-life interference”. This was found to be worse for women who work long part-time hours (16–34 hours), than for full-time women. Similarly, Dr Duxbury’s survey of managers and professionals found that work/life conflict was not always resolved by those in flexible work arrangements such as part-time work: 52% of part-timers in that study were found to experience role overload.[vi] Their work demands remained high, they had a demanding personal situation, low flexibility, lower levels of management support and limited time for career development.
Why Are Workloads Increasing?
Statistics indicate that high workload is a problem in many Australian industries. Importantly for many employers, an excessive workload culture does not necessarily lead to a more productive workforce. Excessive workload can also increase the risk of other workplace problems, such as increased absences, higher employee turnover, discrimination, employee burnout and disillusionment. An organisation which allows (or even promotes) a culture of excessive workload may find that it comes at a high price, which is often indirect and hidden.
While the research suggests that the long term health of any workplace is not sustainable where high workloads continues, few employers are actively considering ways to correct that balance. In fact, some factors are exacerbating
- Downsizing over the past decade means there are less people to do the same (or more) work;
- In some workplaces, loyalty, contribution and commitment may be equated to working long hours, even if employees working such long hours are in fact less productive and the quality of their work may be lower;
- Increased availability of remote logins and PDAs with immediate access to email has increased expectations of response times out of standard office hours; and
- In global companies, and even companies with offices from Perth to Sydney, hours are extended to allow work across time zones.
How Can Employers Redress The Imbalance?
Despite the pressures of globalised business and external pressures, companies find that reducing the risk of employee burn-out, stress and turnover is not impossible. There are a variety of options available for employers who wish to reduce work-life conflict and creating healthier workloads for their employees. Here are a few suggestions:
- Monitor employee’s workloads and measure overtime;
- Ensure management staff are aware of, and set, realistic work schedules;
- Measure the cost to the organisation of unrealistic work, such as the costs of absenteeism, staff turnover, and high work-life conflict – where these costs are quantified, they may be found to exceed the cost of employing extra staff;
- Set realistic limits on the use of email outside of work – just because an email can be sent at 11.30pm to a PDA does not mean that it is appropriate to do so;
- Consider rewarding staff for the amount and quality of their output, rather than simply the number of hours they spend at the workplace;
- Actively and publicly address abuse of work hours as a negative phenomenon, by discouraging taking work home and making it clear that advancement will not be achieved by working excessive amounts; and
- Support flexible work practices and consider the negative longer-term impact of overwork on staff and on the organisation.
Both sensible workloads and work flexibility are necessary for creating more productive and happier workplaces. Like commitment to flexible work practices or any workplace cultural change, commitment to any of these measures must be driven and embraced by the organisation’s leaders. It requires a commitment from the top, and a genuine understanding of not only the business case for the change, but also how the change will support a productive, healthy and ethical culture.
[i] Blang, R, Kenyon, A, Lekhi, R “Stress at Work” The Work Foundation pp 6-7
[ii] Statistics sourced in July 2008 from OECS Stat Extracts, OECD Library, at http://stats.oecd.org/wbos/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=AVE_HRS
[iii] Duxbury, L and Higgins, C 2007 “Executive Summary to the Report: “Work-life balance in Australia in the New Millennium: rhetoric versus reality” ” based on research conducted in Australia in 2007 by Beaton Consulting Pty Ltd in Melbourne, page 14.
[iv] Campbell, I, Malone, J, Charlesworth, S 2008 “Working Paper No. 43 : “The Elephant in the Room” The Working-Time patterns of solicitors in private practice in Melbourne” Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law, The University of Melbourne
[v] Pocock, B, Skinner, N, and Williams, P 2007 “Work Life and Time: The Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI)” Hawke Institute for Sustainable Societies, University of South Australia, page 4. http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/cwl/default.asp
[vi] Duxbury, L and Higgins, C 2007 “Executive Summary to the Report: “Work-life balance in Australia in the New Millennium: rhetoric versus reality” ” based on research conducted in Australia in 2007 by Beaton Consulting Pty Ltd in Melbourne, page 15.