The effect of long hours a survey of Existing Literature

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A Survey of Existing Literature.

Extended hours of work have serious negative effects on families, relationships and communities according to this report commissioned by the Queensland Government.

The survey – The Effect Of Long Hours On Family And Community Life – was conducted by Doctor Barbara Pocock and researchers at the Centre for Labour Research at Adelaide University.

Overall the report finds that there is powerful evidence in a growing body of research that long hours are bad for individuals, couple relationships, children and the community fabric.


Australian workers are increasingly working long hours in comparison with employees in other OECD nations. This is taking place at a time when the structure of Australian families and the labour market is changing. Dual earner families and female earner families have become more common than the traditional male breadwinner family. A transformation has occurred with a move away from the traditional male-headed household. There has long been a proportion of Australian households that are dual earner in structure, and time has always been in short supply in these households. However, the proportion of homes where both parents work has rapidly increased over the last few decades, spreading the pattern of time scarcity to a much larger proportion of Australian families. At the same time diverse family structures now exist in Australia with a growing proportion that are sole parent households with a wide range of income support and working arrangements. The increase in working hours in this context of transformed family and household structures, means that their effects are more widespread and pronounced.

The relationship between working hours and family life is complex. In some cases, earnings from longer working hours relieve stress and strain in family life that flows from financial difficulties. Research about children’s views suggests that they value the things that their parents’ earnings can buy. But they also want time with their parents, particularly time where their parents are focused upon them. The weight of international evidence suggests that long working hours create negative consequences for families. This effect is especially pronounced where jobs are demanding and pressure and extended hours exist in combination – as the literature suggests they frequently do.

There is a considerable international literature on the impact of work on family life. However, there is a much smaller – though growing – body of research addressing the specific issue of the effect of long or unreasonable hours on family life, which is the focus of this review. There are very public anecdotal cases of parental choices in favour of children over long hours jobs: for example, US Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s declaration that ‘there’s no way of getting work and family in to better balance. You’re inevitably shortchanging one or the other, or both.’ (Shellenbarger 1999: 125) and Bill Galston’s resignation advice to the US President that he find another domestic policy advisor ‘because you can replace me but my son can’t’ (Shellenbarger 1999:130). The internet has a rapidly increasing number of sites offering fathers and mothers advice on how to hold everything together with titles like ‘How to be a star performer at work, without working long hours, sacrificing time with your family or burning out’ and ‘Problems and solutions: family life when dad works 70+ hours per week’. Many of these focus on finding efficiencies in family time, and working at the individual level to ‘get things right’.

However the academic research literature on the specific effects of long hours on family life is leaner. Australian material is especially scant. This paper reviews selected relevant literature on the linkages between, on the one hand, long hours and more demanding jobs and, on the other, family life. It provides analysis of key issues suggested by that literature. An extended bibliography is attached.

We conclude that the literature suggests that extended hours of work have serious negative effects on the institution of the family, on relationships and upon civil society and community. There is a tension between the demands of employers for workers to stay at their paid jobs longer and the needs of women and men in paid employment – and their children - to establish and maintain quality relationships, households and communities.

Working Hours

Longer working hours affect a growing number of Australians (ACIRRT 1999: 101-102). The proportion of full-time workers working standard working hours (ie about 40 hours a week) has dropped significantly since the late 1970s, whereas the proportion working very long hours has increased. Two thirds of full-time workers were working 35-40 hours per week in the late 1970s. Today employees working standard hours make up less than half of the full-time labour force. The proportion of full-time workers working very long hours (more than 48 a week) jumped from 19 per cent in the late seventies to 32 per cent in the late 1990s (ACIRRT 1999: 102).

In Queensland, 46 per cent of those working full-time are now working more than 45 hours a week compared to 33 per cent in 1981. What is more, much of the growth in long hours is at the upper end of the long hours spectrum (ACIRRT, 2001:6)

The people working extended hours are predominantly managers and professionals and some blue collar occupations. Research indicates that at the turn of the new millennium half of all managers are working 49 or more hours per week and another quarter are working between 41 and 48 hours per week (ACIRRT 1999: 103). Likewise more than a quarter of professionals work more than 49 hours per week and another quarter work between 41 and 48 hours. Many blue-collar workers in occupations such as sales representatives, miners and truck drivers also put in very long hours. For many workers, especially in the professions, their long hours are unpaid and 44 per cent of women who regularly worked overtime in their main job in 2000 were not paid for that overtime, compared to 28 per cent of similar men (ABS Cat no. 6342.0).

Australia parallels the United States among the OECD nations in the proportion of men working more than 50 hours per week (Jacobs and Gerson 1998: 5). More than 20 per cent of men in both countries work more than 50 hours a week compared to less than 10 per cent in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

Changes in the Australian workplace over the last twenty years have been accompanied by changes in the gender composition of the labour force. Men’s participation in paid work has declined by seven percentage points over the last twenty years. In contrast women’s participation in paid work has increased strongly, making this rise one of the most profound changes in our labour market in recent decades. In 1980 45 per cent of Australian women worked outside the home, but by 2000, 54 percent of women worked outside the home. This increase, in combination with men’s falling participation in paid work, has had a profound impact on Australian communities and families (Pocock 2001: 4).

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