Unpredictable work hours take their toll

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Australians work longer hours than many in the developed world. However, work stress appears to be related more to an inability to work the desired hours and the unpredictability of work hours, rather than the actual number of hours worked.

These are the findings of a study just released by the Australia Institute, which looked at the impact of work hours and workplace culture on the health of employees. The findings are relevant to the New Zealand context, where there is evidence longer and ‘non-standard’ hours are increasingly the norm, and that hazards such as fatigue arising from long hours worked are re-emerging.*

Half of respondents to study by Richard Denniss and David Baker, reported that they would like to work different hours to those that they do, and one fifth reported that they work unpredictable hours. In total, some 2.2 million workers said  they have little or no idea what time they will finish on any given day.

The result is that half of Australians are dissatisfied with their hours of work.

But is this a problem?  Denniss and Baker argue that a lack of satisfaction with working hours leads to various ill effects, including stress and anxiety, lack sleep, and an inability to meet personal commitments. “More than 3.2 million Australians report that their working conditions are a cause of stress and anxiety, 2.9 million have experienced a loss of sleep as a result of their working arrangements and 2.2 million Australians report that their work has an adverse impact on their personal relationships,” they found.

Down the road  stress and overwork can lead to depression and heart disease, which have huge costs for employers and society more generally.

On the other hand, “perceptions of security and predictability of work, and satisfaction with hours or work were strongly linked to the absence of ill effects,” they said.

Suggestions arising from the study:

  • A need for improved communication between employees and employers.
  • Employees should make a greater effort to discuss their work/life preferences and expectations with their family, colleagues and manager.
  • Employers should make a greater effort to act on the feedback they receive from their staff in order to increase staff satisfaction, reduce staff turnover and reduce the costs of absenteeism.
  • The authors also suggested instituting a nationwide survey on employee satisfaction in organisations with more than 100 employees. “The collection and publication of such data would provide significant benefits to…existing employers who provide a health workplace culture.”

*These findings were included in a report by the National Occupational and Health and Safety Advisory Committee in 2008.

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