How Can We Balance Work, Rest And Play?

How Can We Balance Work, Rest And Play?

The idea of Australia as a laidback nation of beach dwellers and BBQ aficionados no longer stacks up. In a country where our households are giving more time to paid work, the issue of how we spend our time – and the amount we give to work and with what effect – is of growing significance.

Picture by Tristan Bowersox

This is what we found when, after five years of asking Australians about their working lives, my co-authors and I sat down to write a book. The issue of time jumped off the page – the time we give to work; the way that time sends us home; our time for rest, sleep and holidays; the way teenagers spend their time; the time we have to change our environmental behaviours and; the time we have (or lack) for education, contemplation and fun.

The experience of working time is very different for men and women. While a large portion of Australian women work part-time (many more than in most OECD countries), most men work full-time and a growing proportion work much more than full-time. Far from the land of the laid-back worker and the long weekend, Australia ranks sixth out of 28 countries in terms of the average hours worked by full-timers.

Australian full-timers work shorter hours on average than South Korea and Turkey, but two hours a week longer than Germans, almost three more than the French and five more than most Nordic countries.

Almost a third of Australian workers are working 45 hours of more – among them, half of fathers of preschoolers. We want fathers to play a greater role in the care of their children and households (and many want to do this), and long hours are an important part of the story about why this isn’t happening.

Most of those who work long hours would like to work less, even after taking account of what this would do to their pay packets. Over the past 20 or so years, the long hours genii has jumped out of the bottle and international studies tell us that this is likely to be having an effect on our public health and safety bill, and the costs of our health system.

But, the work-and-time story is not just about the hours we work. It’s also about whether we can take a holiday; the level of flexibility we have at work; the growing length of our commute; the impact on the care we can give our children and aging friends and relatives; and the time squeeze affecting our ability to participate in education and training.

Many Australian workers don’t take their annual leave in the year that they accumulate it, for instance, some because they are saving it up for a longer break but many because the pressures of work mean they struggle to take leave.

Others – like many of the one-in-four employees who are now casual workers – don’t have an entitlement to a paid holidays even though they work all year round because their casual leave loading doesn’t stretch to a holiday. Or, they can’t afford to refuse shifts to take a break.

So the idea of Australia as a laidback nation of beach dwellers and BBQ aficionados no longer stacks up. Instead, our leaders exhort us to work harder, to give more to the workplace and to stay at work longer over the life-cycle – well into what used to be retirement.

Once, we worked to live and work was the means to a sustainable existence rather than an end in itself – not any more.

With almost half of our labour force now made up of women (and not much change in the gendered pattern of domestic work, with women, on average, doing twice as much as men), the effect of working hard on our households is very different to when the male breadwinner/female carer household was the dominate type.

With two people heading out to work in the morning, and growth in sole mother-workers, there’s a real time squeeze for those putting together two kinds of time: the predictable clock of the workplace with the unpredictable demands of natural time – the clock of care, nurturing, the body and the household.

These clocks of work and care don’t keep the same time. And the flexibility revolution, which can help with the clock wrangle, has barely touched many workplaces.

In other cases, it has meant the flexibility to turn on the laptop at night when the kids are in bed. New technologies can help put together conflicting clocks, but they also enable greedy jobs to spill out into care time, squeezing sleep, rest and recreation.

The notion of work-life balance is an inadequate metaphor for this complex world of conflicting times. The idea of the clever, organised individual, who holds it all together, ignores the social and structural factors that truly shape whether balance is achievable.

Australia needs good labour law and effective management to control runaway hours where they occur, and to ensure employees get enough sleep and holidays so that our workplaces are productive and safe, and our households healthy and sustainable.


Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner & Philippa Williams’ new book, Time Bomb: Work, Rest and Play in Australia Today was launched on Monday by the South Australian Premier. It can be ordered here.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.


    • The article addresses this with its mention of one-in-four workers who are casual employees. That’s one quarter of workers.
      Pretty sure we’re already there when it comes to rapid uptake of casual employment…

    • Being a business owner it makes more sense to hire Casuals, the stuffing around with holidays and sick days. But the worst thing is “full time employment” makes workers (not all, but a lot) very complacent (especially the “Ahh, couldn’t be stuffed, I’ll chuck a sicky”) and it also gives them the idea they are “fire proof”.

      With casual employees, they are more enthusiastic, and are more genuinely keen to work.

      It boils down to a simple formula, “You don’t work, you don’t get paid”

  • Do yourself a favour and make sure you make the time to get play and rest, then guard them fiercely.

    Life has a way of pushing your well-being to one side and filling your days up with work of all kinds (including the domestic varieties).

    Ask yourself what are you looking forward to that has a specific date and time. If this is more than a month away, something is wrong. Fix it, like NOW.

  • What’s the point in having laws saying what hours people work when a company can just present you a contract (no options, no negotiation, and standard across the industry) that says ‘you will work the hours that are required’?
    Then there’s mining. Sure the money’s great, but men (face it, it’s 90%men) spend AT LEAST half their time away from their families. It’s probably a cultural thing (I’m not australian) but surely, don’t they like their wives? are they that eager to get away from them? What about their children?

    The government and private businesses need to do more to allow people to actually have a work life balance and not just make it so work is someone’s life.. build better rural communities, stop the ridiculous property price inflation (I’m looking at you Blackwater and Gladstone!) and give people reasonable rosters.. (I mean if mining’s a bit restrictive, try construction! worst rosters ever!)

    • I’m not sure if it’s true, but in a lot of mining sector jobs they push the limits of workers, like 12 hour shifts, with maximum days in a row (15 days from what I heard)?

      And is it true that renting a house (if you don’t live on base) cost a fortune, so what ever you make there, you end up spending it on rent anyway.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!