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Work/Life Balance Policies - Andrew Little Speech

Andrew Little
National Secretary
Engineering, Printing And Manufacturing Union

Address To
Work/Life Balance Conference
Waipuna International Hotel
22 August 2002
10.00am


A Worker’s Perspective Of Work/Life Balance Policies


The first thing we should note about being here today – or these two or three days – is that at the beginning of the 21st century our society has organised itself in such a way that we have to have a conference on balancing work and life.

This ought to send a shudder down our collective spine.

In the complex and sophisticated world in which we live, we are dependent on the economic act of doing paid work in order to sustain ourselves and our households, and to fulfil our personal and family aspirations.

We know there are some whose key life aspiration is to grow their wealth, usually by putting their capital at risk. These are people for whom life itself is almost an economic act. But my address, and this conference, is not about those people. It is about ordinary people living diverse lives, wanting to feel human and wanting to participate in what humanity has to offer.

We might ask ourselves the question “Why has the need to achieve a work/life balance become so topical?”

From my observation, “work/life balance” policies have become very fashionable in human resources circles in the past 2-3 years. Is it just an HR fad to give HR managers and advisers another flag to rally around - and another opportunity to show that HR really can add value to business.

Are the solutions that are emerging actually addressing the problem?

First of all, is there a problem?

It is clear from a growing body of evidence that, at least in the Western world, wage and salary earners are working longer hours. Research from Europe suggests that a rapidly growing proportion of full-time workers are working an average of between 45 and 50 hours a week. Recent official statistics from the UK show one in six people now working more than 48 hours a week and one in ten men working more than 55 hours a week.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many traditional blue-collar workers, who tend to be paid on an overtime basis, routinely work these sorts of hours. Many traditional white-collar workers, who tend to be paid on a salary and therefore who are not paid extra for working overtime, are routinely working more than 50 hours a week.

But it is not just the fact that long hours are being worked that is of concern. The nature of work, people’s engagement with it and what they take away from work in their non-working hours are also important. In this respect, health statistics show an increase over the past 10-15 years in stress-related conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, etc. There is greater reported use of therapeutic drugs for anxiety and depression and related conditions.

It might be possible to say about some of these health conditions that we have simply become more aware of them, and certainly more aware of how to treat them. And it is also possible to say that the increased incidence of some of these conditions might be related to factors other than work. But the significant increase in these conditions must also be seen in the context of significant changes in the way that a lot of work is done. Specifically, more information is processed electronically, more manufacturing operational tasks have been automated and are controlled by sitting at a console, and the advent of operations such as call centres has introduced a type of work that did not exist before.

As the science of management has gained a greater foothold in the workplace in the past 20 or 30 years, and as more functions are measured for efficiency, effectiveness and return on inputs, so the pressure has gone on the way in which that work is carried out and measured. One of the more insidious developments at work in the last decade has been the level of supervision and recording of employees’ performance through the use of technology. For many, this has made work more stressful.

The advent of devices such as cellphones and laptops with remote access to the workplace has blurred the line at which work ends and a worker’s personal life begins.

A combination of individuals’ economic needs, of the impact of technology on modern day work, and of our individual and collective expectations for a certain standard of living, have converged to put work at a place in society which is now challenging the value and importance of people in society.

This is not what we were led to believe would happen 25 or more years ago. Then, we were told that the impending technology revolution would not only free us up, but would also generate sufficient wealth for us to enjoy our extra leisure time. It was predicted, then, that schools would have to train young people in how to use leisure time.

A recent qualitative study by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions on the impact of work hours on New Zealand workers and their families shows just how far we haven’t come since that wonderful Nirvana was forecast.

The CTU project, called “Thirty Families”, involved interviewing 30 workers and their families on the hours they were working and the impact this had on their personal lives. The people interviewed were from a range of occupations, including front-line workers in the hospitality industry, teachers, doctors, production workers, drivers and lawyers. Most worked 45-55 hours a week. Some of the professionals worked in excess of 60 or 70 hours a week.

Many workers in the study talked about a work/eat/sleep cycle; that is, all they did was work, eat and sleep. Some who had families seldom had the opportunity to meet with their families as a whole, and one worker had to make specific arranged times to be with his partner and see his kids.

Even those whose hours were such that they did get to have regular time with their families, worked patterns of hours which meant that they were often exhausted when that family time came around.

This is what one dairy worker said in the CTU study:

You want to do more than just work, eat and sleep, but most of the time you are too shagged to do anything else. When you are not at work, you are at home trying to relax, and mostly you just fall asleep. Some of the guys try and keep up with their kids and spend time with their wives and all, but mostly everyone just works their arses off, and then catches up with their families on their days off.

In another case, a public servant in a large government department explained how as she gained more experience and acquired more responsibility, she eventually found she was working 60-70 hours a week, including working on weekends. Her health began to deteriorate. She said:

My health started to unravel bit by bit, so I didn’t notice at first. I put on some weight, maybe 6, 7 kilos, my teeth started looking yellow because of all the coffee I was drinking. I had bags under my eyes because I wasn’t sleeping very well … I was constantly worrying about everything. If it wasn’t the pressure of deadlines at work it was whether I had left the oven on at home. I started losing my temper with small things, like my partner’s habit of dropping wet towels on the floor. It drove me up the wall. We started arguing all the time. It just made my stress worse.

One day it was all just too much and I burst into tears at work. … The hours, the pressure, the responsibility was just killing me. I went to the doctor and he said I was in real danger of physical and emotional breakdown …

The issues don’t just affect regular day workers or regular shift workers. They affect those people who work a number of jobs to eke out a reasonable living. A 52-year-old worker with a family explained the following:

I work a split shift, from 1pm to 4pm then again from 1am to 4am. When I can, I do other manual work like lawn mowing, cleaning gutters, stuff like that. I do that in the mornings, or evenings, depending on when they want me to be there. All up I work 48 hours regular, and then maybe, say, 10 to 12 hours extra a week. I don’t do much else in between … I see the family on Sundays.

These issues are very real. For an increasing number of workers, irrespective of the nature of the work they do, work – and the need to make a living – is interfering in their ability to lead a healthy, balanced life.

Before looking at what I consider to be ways of finding real solutions to these problems, I think it is helpful to look at measures that are being passed off by some employers as solutions to the need to balance work and life.

Tonight, the EEO Trust will present its work/life balance awards. I looked at the awards made last year, and I was horrified. If these are the best measures that New Zealand business can come up with, then we are in serious trouble. The role that the Trust should be playing is not rewarding these half-measures, but pushing for the real issues to be addressed.

In my view, many of the measures being taken – and rewarded - are wholly inadequate to deal with the real problem. Indeed, they don’t deal with the problem at all. They merely seek to soften the symptoms. They are simply palliative.

If I sound highly critical of some of the measures I am about to talk about, it’s because I am. And I make no apology for this.

The following measures were either considered for awards last year or were given awards as indicative of progress by employers towards a work/life balance at work. They included:

- Free cappuccinos at work.
- Mountain bikes available “24 hours a day”.
- Family visits to work and work functions for families.
- Massages at work.
- Blood pressure readings at work funded by the employer.
- Vending machines (presumably, for food).
- Incentives for new mothers to return to work early.
- Teleworking and remote access to local area networks.
- Allowing one day a year to work for a charity.

In fairness, there were some measures listed in some of the employer profiles which deserve positive recognition. Two such measures were special leave for new fathers and unlimited sick and domestic leave for personal or family sickness.

I find it difficult to see how access to free cappuccinos in the workplace could possibly be seen as addressing the problem of work organisation and excessive working hours. Free cappuccinos, like massages at work and blood pressure readings, are about accommodating a culture of excessive work demand. Having a family visiting space at work seems the ultimate perversity. I am sure if you asked most families who avail themselves of such measures, you would find that they would prefer to have the working family member at home or down at the park or on the beach rather than the family having to see them at work.

Having facilities for teleworking or remote access to local area networks is good for some people in certain types of work which can be done in this way. It is one way, for example, of allowing working parents with infant children to do some types of work while remaining at home with those children. And incentives for new mothers to return to work early need to be assessed against how reasonable or practicable it is for a new mother to return to work so soon after giving birth. The value of such a measure may depend on other measures in place, such as childcare facilities at work.

With the exception of the leave provisions, few of the measures identified address the real issue, which is work organisation and hours of work.

It is wrong, in my view, for the EEO Trust to be celebrating palliative measures. They are practices that reinforce an unhealthy approach to work, rather than promote a healthy balance in life.

If we are serious about ensuring a work/life balance, then it is work that needs to be organised in such a way that it is humanly possible for people to do it, it is economically viable to do it and it can be done without compromising personal and family responsibilities.

Let’s focus on fitting the work around people, rather than jamming people into bad work patterns.

In this day and age, less work is based on brawn and more work is based on using the brain. Workers are increasingly required to make a range of decisions and judgements on behalf of their employer. But the brain can’t be used continuously or excessively. It needs adequate rest.

Fitting work around this basic need is critical. The obvious business benefit is a more refreshed workforce, capable of taking on tasks on a sustainable or enduring basis. It probably means better decisions and judgement. It must also mean a workforce that has a greater degree of goodwill and a greater commitment to the business.

But the benefits of good work organisation don’t just accrue to business. The community as a whole benefits. Working people who are able not only to fulfil their work obligations but also to fulfil social needs such as being with their family and friends, and engaging in social activities such as sport and church, strengthen our communities.

Ultimately, we are talking about people fulfilling their basic role of citizenship. It is about maintaining our social capital. People who are engaged with their community not just through work but through their own personal activities are more able to contribute to that community. Having an employer-sanctioned one day a year in which to perform charitable works does not, in my view, cut the mustard.

Looking at work organisation means looking at the work that has to be done and the way in which that work is done. It means looking at the time when the work needs to be done. I am conscious that in our 24 hour/seven day a week society with its ever increasing demands for service, access and availability there is an increasing number of tasks and operations that need to be structured to run all hours of the day. (There is a bigger argument about how necessary much of this is – for example, do we really need to be able to contact our insurance company at three o’clock in the morning to talk about renewal of a policy? But this is not the occasion to go into that.)

The union movement’s claim, during the recent election campaign and before, for four weeks annual leave is aimed at ensuring that everybody has access to more leisure and personal time to rest and recuperate from longer hours at work. It will be interesting to see over the next couple of years how many employers who profess to have an interest in work/life balance measures will look at current leave entitlements and increase them to allow for additional rest and recuperation.

Leave is not the only issue. For some operations and jobs in which employees work extended periods (for example, 12 hour shifts) there need to be adequate breaks at work. For continuous processes, this means having adequate staff available to ensure that everyone gets to have a break. For sedentary roles, it means structuring, and providing facilities for, breaks from work.

The way that hours are arranged is important. I know from my own observation that increasingly in the service sector there appears to be a move towards greater use of split shifts. That is, working a few hours in the morning, taking a break of a few hours, and then doing another few hours later in the day. Arrangements such as these tend to extend the working day. When workers finish the first short stint at the beginning of the day, that is not the end of their work. Although they may have two, three or four hours’ break before their next stint, often there is a limited range of things they are able to do during that time (especially if they live in Auckland and it takes an hour or more to get home).

Another area that employers need to consider, where appropriate, is flexibility of working time. Where the nature of the job is such that they can be accommodated, measures should be in place to allow workers to work hours that allow them to meet their personal needs.

Employers need to be aware that the claim for four weeks leave is only one remedy for these issues. Internationally, unions are raising concerns about the speeding up of work and the effect this has on employees. The issue becomes even more important against the background of the ageing workforce in the Western world.

Employers may find that more than just economic factors will drive what happens in this area of employee relations and business practice. The new government has, through its coalition arrangements, promised a commission for the family. This is in response to at least two political parties calling for either a commission for the family or an inquiry into the family.

I welcome the fact that these issues will now get some attention from the public policy process. The term “family” needs to be broadly understood; it is not just Mum and/or Dad and a couple of kids. It is the full range of household arrangements in which people live and that make up our diverse society. If the role of the commission is to provide a framework within which we can look at institutions and practices in our communities, including private sector conduct, and their impact on families and households, then the prospect of the commission is to be welcomed.

If it looks at how work is affecting the extent to which people are able to contribute to our social infrastructure, then it will be a worthwhile enterprise.

No doubt, the issue will have been thrown into stark relief over the last couple of days with news of 10 year olds being left at home without parental supervision.

The challenge will be for a political party like United Future to be bold enough to accept that significant changes might be needed if we are to reinstate greater social cohesion in New Zealand.

If we are serious about addressing the issue, then we need to be prepared to be radical. The challenge lies not only with politicians to be bold enough to promote the necessary kinds of changes. The challenge ultimately lies with employers; it is employers who will make the decisions. Employers will decide what kind of leadership they collectively are prepared to show in ensuring a healthy future for business and our communities.

The union movement looks forward to the debate. You can be sure that we will be taking a vocal part.

Ends

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