Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Working Long Hours', Engineers Australia, March 2001, p. 42.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

The working hours of those with full-time jobs are steadily increasing. Longer working hours is in many cases the consequence of the wave of downsizing that has occurred over the past two decades. Fewer people are expected to do more work.

A 1998 study, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, found that only 24 percent of workers work a standard 40-hour week, compared with 44 percent twenty years ago. The difference has been attributed mainly to overtime, often unpaid, with 30 percent working more than 49 hours per week compared with 19 percent in 1978.

A government survey found that Australian workers today "endure more stress, work faster and more intensively, and put more effort into their jobs than they used to". A survey of 19,000 people carried out by the Department of Industrial Relations found that sixty percent of people said their work effort had increased over the previous year and half said they were more stressed. A 1999 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) survey confirmed these findings.

New trends in management require more work from employees including: performance-related pay; outsourcing where work is put out to contract and those who can achieve more for a given payment win the contracts; re-engineering which requires less workers to be more flexible and cover more tasks; and 'stretch management' which involves "setting goals just beyond a worker's previous limits."

Job insecurity is another major reason behind the rising working hours of middle managers and professionals. Two top business schools, Harvard and Stanford, have made their management courses shorter because "potential customers are fearful of spending too many weeks away from their jobs."

Although many people imagine that pre-industrial people worked harder to supply themselves with their needs than people in affluent countries today, this was not the case. In most pre-industrial societies, life was slow and leisurely and the hours of work required to meet their simple needs were far fewer than we spend today.

According to anthropologists, hunter-gatherer societies were able to meet their needs and enjoy an adequate diet with 20-35 hours work per week. Peasants doing agricultural work in medieval times, worked according to growth cycles and seasons and were thought to have worked perhaps 120-150 days in a year, although some of these days would have been long.

There was a big incentive for industrial employers to increase the hours that workers worked because they tended to pay them by the day or week and so extra hours did not cost the employer any more. Firms that were able to get more work out of their workers for a given wage became more competitive and other firms were forced to follow. Hours rose steadily in the nineteenth century reaching 75-90 a week in factories in the US. Indeed the working week for most occupations was over 60 hours.

In modern times working hours are again increasing despite high levels of unemployment. Indeed it is the presence of unemployment that enables employers to demand longer hours from those who feel they are lucky to have a job. In the 1980s it was estimated that overtime in the steel industry cost workers about ten thousand jobs and in the auto industry over eighty thousand jobs. Similar situations occurred in the mining industry.

In Australia 43 percent of full-time workers work overtime and 65 percent of them do not get paid for their overtime. Professionals who are usually on a salary are particularly vulnerable to employer demands for longer hours. Hours at work are supplemented by extra hours spent travelling on behalf of the company and attending business functions.

Some professional groups and management executives work 70-80 hours per week with extra work in times of heavy demand. Over eighty percent of professional scientists and engineers surveyed by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers of Australia (APESMA) said they regularly worked unpaid overtime. In such situations those who refuse to work these hours will be passed over when it comes to promotions because it is taken as an indicator of lack of commitment to the company.

However long hours can mean increasing fatigue rather than increasing productivity. And the loss in time spent with friends, family and personal development is a social cost that increased productivity does not necessarily make up for.