Work and Life in a Pandemic: For Many, Working at Home is More Like Living at Work
By Dan Nahum
Wednesday 18 November 2020 marked the twelfth annual Go Home on Time Day, an initiative of the Centre for Future Work, shining a spotlight on overwork among Australians including excessive overtime that is often unpaid.
2020 has been an extraordinary and difficult year, and our annual survey reiterated that working practices have changed, reflecting the threats presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year we reported that over half (51%) of employed respondents have chosen, or been requested by their employers, to perform some or all of their work from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, even though total work hours have fallen, and much work has shifted to home, demands for unpaid overtime remain strong, with the average number of unpaid hours increasing to 5.3 hours per week, per worker (from 4.6 in 2019).
This equates to 273 hours per year, or over 7 weeks of full-time work. At the economy-wide level, it extrapolates to $98.6 billion in lost income — almost $100 billion worth of work being performed but not compensated.
The macroeconomic significance of almost $100 billion of unpaid overtime is especially concerning this year: at a time when consumer confidence and demand have been enormously damaged, this ‘time theft’ is effectively removing staggering amounts of purchasing power from the pockets of workers — who are, after all, consumers as well. Therefore, the business community also has a stake in ensuring that incomes are properly paid, and circulate through the economy.
There is a persistent incongruity in our findings regarding the polarisation of working hours amongst Australian workers: many report too few paid hours, while simultaneously, others report working more than they wish. In particular, almost half (44%) of part-time employees and more than half (53%) of casual employees reported that they wanted more paid hours.
This polarisation of working hours reflects the dichotomy in employer strategies: using a precarious, ‘just-in-time’ workforce for many jobs (shifting the risk of fluctuations in demand onto the shoulders of part-time, casual, and contingent labour), while demanding very long hours (including large amounts of unpaid overtime) from a separate group of core, largely full-time workers.
At both ends of the labour market, policy responses are required to assist workers in achieving a better work-life balance. Casual work should be used only as a supplementary workforce to help smooth out seasonal or cyclical fluctuations in business. And our findings underline the case in favour of shorter standard working hours, which would help strengthen employment opportunities (including for currently underutilised workers).
We also found evidence of increasing blurring between people’s work and non-work lives: almost three-quarters (70%) of Australians working from home are doing at least some of it outside their regular hours. And although 28% of workers said their family and/or caring responsibilities had increased as a result of COVID-19, one-fifth (21%) of workers indicated that their employers’ expectations of their availability had increased during the COVID-19 crisis.
Of those workers who reported additional caring responsibilities as a result of COVID-19, 27% of men had not received time allowances from their employer to do so. But almost half (45%) of women had not — evidence of a double burden for women, in which increasing unpaid formal work combines with an increasing domestic burden.
And 16% of respondents whose employers made time allowances for family and caring responsibilities — permitting workers to rearrange their day to accommodate these increased responsibilities — reported having lost pay in accommodating those caring responsibilities. Once again, men were more likely to get flexibility from their employer and retain the same pay (57% of men with increased caring responsibilities), compared to women (39%).
It is incredibly concerning — for both employers and employees — that 14% of people working from home indicated their home workspace was not appropriate or not safe. Under work health and safety legislation, employers have a duty of care to employees, regardless of the location of employment.
There are major ongoing implications from our findings. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated an inflection point in Australian work and management culture. We found that one-third (33%) of employed survey respondents expected to work from home more following the COVID-19 crisis. But as we have seen, working from home is no panacea for the balancing act of combining paid work and family responsibilities — in fact, in some ways it makes the problem harder.
Without adequate rules and protections home work risks a further incursion of work into people’s personal time, and poorer health and safety standards. To respond to that risk, our industrial relations system needs to reinforce and bolster Australia’s minimum standards around employment. Australians, regardless of whether they are working from home or not, need a stronger system of protections, including: limits on hours, overtime pay when relevant, allowances for home office expenses, and practical and enforceable work health and safety rules for home work.
Please read our full 2020 Go Home On Time Day report at this location.