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Families under pressure: New CTU research

22 July 2002

Families under pressure: New CTU research

“A Council of Trade Unions research study released today clearly shows many New Zealand families are under severe pressure as a result of long work hours and changing work hour patterns,” Council of Trade Unions president Ross Wilson said today.

The CTU has released the first part of a research project entitled Thirty Families, which documents the impact of work hours on families through workers’ stories.

The Thirty Families Interim Report on work hours is the first part of the CTU research study. The complete report will contain further sections on leave entitlements and balancing work and family.

“The negative effects of excessive working hours, humanised by the real life stories which were the subject of this qualitative research study, have become an unwelcome feature of life in New Zealand in the past decade,” Ross Wilson said.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that there is strong public support for regulation of excessive working hours, and the introduction of family friendly workplace policies,” he said.

“People want to get some balance back into their lives.”

“The wheel has turned a full circle and after more than a decade of de-regulation it is once again necessary to consider some form of regulation of working hours in the interests of health and safety and to enable New Zealand workers and families to get a life.”

The research project was commissioned as part of the CTU’s Get A Life! campaign, aimed at achieving changes to legislation and through collective bargaining to address work/life issues.

“Achieving a balance between working life and private life is also necessary for the health of our society. Long working hours deny people the opportunity to relate to family and friends and to contribute to community life,” said Ross Wilson.

“I hope this research report will contribute to a long overdue debate on the legal and other measures needed to achieve a modern workplace environment which recognises and values workers’ family and community responsibilities.”

Ross Wilson said it was encouraging that some political parties had recognised the importance of work/life issues in their policies.

“We are calling on political parties to explain to New Zealand families how their policies address:

- Excessive work hours

- The impact of long hours on workers’ health and safety

- The negative impact of long hours on families

- The lack of choice many workers face over excessive hours

- The financial need to work increasingly longer hours

- The impact of unsocial hours

- The increased demand to work longer than contracted hours

- The lack of regulation for reasonable breaks

- The difficulties workers face juggling long hours with care of dependents

- The double burden faced by women workers who work excessive hours

Ross Wilson said the CTU would be approaching the next government for concrete commitment to addressing excessive hours and other work/life issues.


Interim Report of the Thirty Families Project:

the Impact of Work Hours on New Zealand Workers and their Families

A Report Commissioned by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, 2002.


Background of the Study

In 2001 the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU), concerned by the anecdotal evidence that New Zealand workers were working long and difficult work hours, decided to conduct research into work life balance. The NZCTU identified work hours, leave entitlement and the challenges of balancing work and family as critical factors in work life balance.

The main plank of the New Zealand project was a series of qualitative interviews with workers and their families. The study sought the experiences and stories of thirty New Zealand families. The study's findings would then provide the NZCTU with the basis for a work life balance campaign of public and union member education, lobbying for legislative changes, and bargaining for improved work conditions to establish work life balance for New Zealand workers, their families and their communities.

This interim report provides a snapshot of the Thirty Families project. It highlights one of the three themes of the qualitative interviews: work hours. The report includes an overview of the research project, and material from interview discussions on work hours, including why people work long hours, and the impact of these hours on individual workers, and their families.

Number of Hours Worked

For almost all of the workers we interviewed in the Thirty Families Project, work hours were a major issue with huge implications for individual workers, their families, and their communities. For many workers, the hours were simply too long, with many working an average 45 to 55 hours per week, and some working even longer hours. Almost all of those who regularly worked more than 45 hours per week regarded these hours as long, unreasonable, and with significant negative effects on their own lives, and the lives of their families.

Some workers worked long hours on a paid basis, but many received little or no payment for the extra hours they worked. Those who worked long hours unpaid, were motivated by a commitment to the job, pressure from an employer, understaffing or a combination of these forces. They often felt their contribution was undervalued, not only in financial terms, but also in the lack of recognition for the negative impact on themselves, and their families.

For those who worked long hours with paid overtime, the key issue was control over the extra hours: the capacity to say yes or no to them. Many worked long hours without real control over their hours, and the issue of control affected both those who worked unpaid and paid overtime. Those in the hospitality industry, for example, felt that they could not refuse long hours. Those on building sites commented that they were under pressure to work long (paid) hours or lose their jobs or work in the future. Doctors commented on the fear of a loss of training opportunities if they refused long hours.

In some cases the length of work hours was coupled with significant pressure, and work intensity. Workers in the hospitality industry, in nursing, teaching, social work, in call centres, in the public service and in law, all commented on the constant pressure to complete more and more work, with fewer and fewer workers, resources and time. Many workers said that work was frequently unfinished at the end of the day, and at the end of the week. Workers constantly felt that they "never got on top of it, or to the end of it.".

For yet other workers, it was the unpredictability of their working hours, both the length and distribution, which caused them the greatest concern, and the greatest intrusion into other aspects of their lives. Workers commented on work days which ballooned at the end of the day by an hour, or two or three, extra shifts, and unexpected shift changes, or increasingly common, the extension of work into evenings and weekends with the advent of new technology.

For many workers, cell phones, text messaging, e-mail and laptops, have forced work into the home in new ways that lengthen working days and intensify work. Workers, and partners, said that many employers held an expectation that workers were "available" well beyond their "standard" work hours. Some described being expected to have their mobiles on for long periods. For example one engineer described how he was required to have his phone on 'from 6 am to 6 pm everyday... So you haven't even started work and the boss will be on the phone talking to you, he does the same on the way home."

A young lawyer, Megan, said that if she doesn't check her e-mail at home during the weekends, she often misses out on reading important messages from her boss, which often include instructions to read a brief, or prepare a report for Monday. By not reading her e-mail, Megan takes the chance that she won't have done the work by Monday, and thus will be reprimanded by her boss.

The Effect of Work Hours on Individuals and Families

This research highlights the very serious effects of long and difficult work hours on individual workers and their families. Many workers commented on the pressure of long and or difficult work hours, and the impact on their lifestyle, "a work / eat / sleep cycle", and on their health. We heard numerous stories of workers and partner's who were worried about workers driving home after extremely long work hours, of workers who operate machinery whilst fatigued, and avoidable injuries that occurred at the end of long shifts.

For many workers, their work hours had led to a significant reduction in the scope and level of interaction with friends, family and communities. Less than a third of workers we interviewed were involved regularly in any activities outside of their work, or immediate family, and for these workers, it was primarily church which constituted community involvement. Other workers remarked that they used to be involved in sports teams, social clubs, community groups, but a lack of time had forced them to pull back from these activities and concentrate on their work and their immediate family.

This research highlights the major impact the length of work hours are having on the ability of many workers to balance their work and family. Most of the families in this study were under extraordinary stress - workers and partners were struggling to find some sort of balance between their work, and the lives they shared with their friends and families, and communities, but invariably something, or usually someone, missed out.

Many workers felt anxious or regretful about inadequate amounts and quality of time with their partners and their children. They were concerned about their impact of their hours on themselves and their intimate relationships, particularly the toll taken by tiredness, limited amounts of time, and exhaustion on those relationships.

Women workers and partners were also highly concerned about the extra stress placed on women by the "double shifts" of paid work and domestic labour. Women noted that it was their work lives which were usually fitted in around their caring responsibilities, and that their partner’s careers often depended on their provision of a significant level of housework and child care. For women in paid work, in a number of cases working very long hours themselves, the level of unpaid work in the home did not appear to diminish with their increased level of paid work. In this way, all of the women in our study were working extremely long hours, both in the workplace and in the home.

However, long hours are not a problem only for those with child care responsibilities. This study shows that people with other kinds of family obligations are also affected by long hours. In some instances workers without children found themselves being "leaned on to work longer hours where those with families are, in some circumstances, protected by their family responsibilities".

In the end workers in all types of family formations believe that a new expectation has emerged of long hours which affect not just those with children and families, they affect all workers.

Development of a Long Hours Culture

Overall this study reveals that long hours are an entrenched and widespread experience across many occupations and industries in New Zealand. Many interviewees felt they had little real choice in determining or changing their hours. Some have tried to take control by changing jobs, going part-time, taking demotions or changing employers - and sometimes these strategies have worked. However many feel that they have little power to control or reduce their long hours. These hours have created, de facto, a new standard for work hours in "workplaces that are hungry for their contribution."

There are a number of forces which combine to establish a culture of long hours. Some workers want higher incomes through paid overtime, and there are examples where this income is firmly built into household budgets. For others, their paid overtime is not voluntary. In the building industry and in medicine, for example, there is extensive evidence of workers feeling under strong pressure to work overtime.

Many workers we interviewed were not being paid for their overtime. They are pulled into long hours because they want to get the job done or because their supervisors and employers demand it. Teachers want to do their jobs well for their students benefit, doctors and nurses are committed to their patients. However, schools and hospitals appear to be sites of "entrenched patterns of unpaid hours". The commitment of teachers, doctors and nurses, provides fertile ground on which to under staff work places and run lean budgets. The real dollars that are saved, however, do not come without costs to the individuals who work them, their families and friends and the larger community.

Many workers described their workplaces as places where long hours are entrenched, where refusing them meant being tainted as a poor worker, destined for negative treatment, redundancy, undesirable tasks, or the failure to be offered further work. New technologies like the mobile phone have fastened the development of this culture of long hours, enabling work to move more easily into the home and private lives of workers.

The development of a culture of long and unreasonable hours in many workplaces provides a strong argument for change. Legislative, regulatory and contractual change is required in order to weaken the hold of long hours in many workplaces, and lead to a better, and more reasonable balance between work and life for workers, and their families, in New Zealand.

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