Evidence of the need to change how and why we work

Last week Professor Rod McClure of the Monash Injury Research Institute urged Australian safety professionals to look at the ecology of safety and injury prevention.  By using the term “ecology” outside of the colloquial, he was advocating that we search for a universal theory of injury prevention.  In short, he urged us to broaden our understanding of safety to embrace new perspectives.  It could also be argued that he wanted to break the safety profession out of its malaise and generate some social activism on injury prevention – a philosophical kick in the pants.

Before discussing the latest research Australia’s Barbara Pocock has undertaken, with her colleagues Natalie Skinner and Philippa Williams, the challenge of achieving some degree of balance between the two social activities of work and non-work can be indicated by a graph provided by Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty in a recent DISSENT magazine article about financial risk.

In 2008 people in Australian households were working over 50 hours per week.  The reasons for this are of less relevance than the fact that Australian workers are well beyond the 40-hour work week, not including any travel time.  Work has a social cost as well as a social benefit and any discussion (debate?) over productivity, as is currently occurring in Australia, must also consider the social cost of this productivity.  The graph above is a symptom of the challenge of achieving a decent quality of life and a functional level of productivity – the challenge that Pocock, Skinner and Williams have undertaken.

Their book “Timebomb: Work Rest and Play in Australian Today” is the latest in a long line of research that provides ample evidence for the need for social activism aimed at achieving a form of social, or safety, justice.  This not a book about work/life balance, it is a socio-ecological analysis of work.  The authors say how the elements of the social system – Time, Space, Life-stage and Power:

“…act and interact, constructs the wellbeing of those who live in any socio-ecological work, family and community system, their economic productivity, environmental impact and the ease of their social reproduction (that is, their ability to look after themselves and each other [resilience, anyone?] and to reproduce society).

Strong, healthy and inclusive communities; productive workplaces with low levels of turnover, absenteeism, injury and illness; high levels of worker wellbeing, satisfaction and engagement; and high levels of family wellbeing, coherence and support….will reflect a socio-ecological work, family and community system that is functioning well. Through this book, we ask what does it take? How can it be achieved?”

In an occupational context, Timebomb investigates “what makes a good job?”  It discusses what is meant by long hours of work such as the type of statistics shown in the graph above.  It discusses the excessive work expectations of bosses using former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as an example.  The authors say that working “long hours”, however they are defined,

“….increase the risk of a range of mental health issues….., detriments to physical health…..,and affects the quality of our close relationships with partners, children, family and out wider social circle.”

Even if one applied a definition of over 45 hours, as the book does, we are reminded that only one type of work operates within business hours.  The household work starts shortly after getting home.

The authors are fortunate to have access to the 2010 data from the Australian Work and Life index (AWALI).  This data allows detailed analysis but whether other research can become a bit of a whinge over flexible working hours, the authors acknowledge a flip side to the occupational data by asking “what working arrangements help people to thrive at work and the rest of life?”

The authors devote the final chapter to outlining solutions or strategies for “defusing the timebomb”  On the issues of a decent job, they discuss

  • “Reasonable work hours that fit with workers’ needs and preferences;
  • Reasonable workloads that represent realistic and achievable goals within a reasonable timeframe;
  • Opportunities for flexibility around the work clock and its schedule;
  • Supports for working mothers and fathers, and for workers who provide other types of care such as to elderly or disabled people;
  • Supportive workplace cultures, practices and leadership; and
  • A better holiday system”.

It is easy to see the obstacles that many of these recommendations face but almost all of them already have active advocates and lobbyists.  Timebomb provides solid evidence of the necessity for these changes and ends with a hopeful plea:

“If we want to draw more of our citizens into productive paid work over more of their life-times, we need to change the terms of work, the organisation and practices of home life and the operation of our communities so that these domains can work together – sustainably.  And we need to do this in ways that recognise differences between men and women, young and old and higher and low paid.”

This book should not be categorised as the latest book on work/life balance for Professor Pocock has admitted that “work/life balance is “inadequate” in defusing the timebomb.  According to an article in support of the book’s launch in February 2012, Pocock said

“Individuals can do only so much in the face of greedy workplaces, poorly planned transport or inappropriate urban planning….

“The idea of work-life balance puts the clever, juggling individual at the centre of work-life success. However, many people are not ‘masters of their own universe’, controlling how things fit together on terms that allow the easy construction of well-articulated jobs, families and rich community relations.”

The social challenge facing Australia is being recognised by academics and researchers throughout Australia, as seen above.  There have been similar issues in the UK with Dame Carol Black‘s work.  The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and ILO have given the issue of “decent work” renewed attention.  If the Australian Government is committed to “evidence-based policy making” the contents of Timebomb will be influential however evidence also needs a strong political will, a strength that the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has displayed recently on the  National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Regardless of the politics, there are very few reasons why companies that chase the  “employer of choice” badge cannot introduce these organisational, social and occupational changes.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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