Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Stop the clock

Published 03 May 2012 05:08

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If you think you have your work-life balance sorted, you probably don’t. But take heart. You’re not alone – most other Australians don’t, either.

Time Bomb, by three Adelaide-based researchers at the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, is a book about time management and the constraints that keep most of us on a work-centred treadmill that runs – in bad ways – into our family, social and community lives.

In part, this book states the obvious and people pressed for time may want to consider this before reading it. Australians work long hours. Poor planning in cities widens the gap between the wealthy and privileged, who live closer to social and economic centres, and the poor and disadvantaged, who have to endure long trips on public transport. Many working women walk a sleep-deprived tightrope between career and family duties but too few working people are willing to change behaviour and lifestyles that are environmentally unsustainable.

Employers have something to learn from this rather bleak scenario. Australian School of Business professor Rosemary Howard cites the results of a two-year study showing that workplaces where staff are treated reasonably, among other factors, report higher levels of productivity and innovation. Those defined as high performing had 12.5 per cent higher productivity than the lowest performing workplaces.

“Working harder and busier doesn’t necessarily get the right outcome,” she says. “In fact, it gets the opposite.”

While the topics it traverses aren’t new, Time Bomb takes a different approach. Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner and Philippa Williams take the key dilemmas of 21st century urban Australia and describe them in terms of time. Their thesis boils down to this: the unchecked and increasing demands of paid work are mucking up the balance of activities necessary to make people human and safeguard the planet.

“The way we use our time has explosive possibilities because of the way its effects – or shrapnel – spray out, hitting mothers, fathers, carers, workers, bosses, adolescents, young children and the important decision makers in our society,” they write.

Research by the authors shows that one-third of men and one-quarter of women are not getting seven hours’ sleep, “the level recommended for optimal health”. The strain of modern working culture is felt most heavily by women, despite having more flexibility than ever before. In 1979, one-third of employed women worked part-time. By March 2011, that figure had risen to 46 per cent. In the same period, the number of men working part-time had risen from 5 per cent to 16 per cent.

The change, however, has not gone far enough, the authors argue.

“Over the last 50 years many more [women] have taken on paid work but they have not put down their main responsibility for home, care and community making. They simply have too much to do and they work in two simultaneous time zones, with the clock of the workplace overriding the clock of care and natural time.”

To alter this status quo, workplace thinking must change, the book argues. Full-time hours remain the benchmark by which job commitment is measured and promotion allocated. This entrenches the tendency to force women to choose between the main road of career opportunity and the “mummy track”.

The squeeze is also felt by employed fathers of small children, whose working hours on average increased by 5.7 hours a week in the 10 years to 2006.

However, apart from using a new language – of time – to analyse dilemmas that are already well known, the book gives little in the way of answers. It’s a bit like motherhood and apple pie: everyone is in favour of what they say but the difficulty is in achieving it. The authors give little guidance here.

They do cite some encouraging examples. The US state of Utah, for example, introduced a working week for public servants of four 10-hour days. It is very popular with employees, who do the same work and are paid the same money but have an extra day off. The state vehicle fleet travels less and has reduced its carbon emissions.

Perhaps it is unfair to demand more. After all, a complex web of government, employers, managers, developers and community organisations has to be part of finding deep-seated solutions to the overwhelming demands being placed on people. Getting them to that stage is going to take time.

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