Shorter working week key to happiness and jobs

Kirsty Needham
November 10, 2010

An extra 390,000 jobs would be created if the mismatch between overworked Australians and those stuck on part-time or casual wages was addressed, says The Australia Institute.

The Canberra think tank has found half of employees want to work fewer hours, while a third - mostly part-timers - want to work an extra day a week.

The institute's executive director, Richard Denniss, said Australia should consider a French-style cap on working hours, with the 30- or 35-hour standard week a better match.

Mandated shorter standard hours is Greens policy. The federal Greens MP Adam Bandt said legislating in this area was the ''next front'' of workplace reform. ''People who want to work less should have a right to do so,'' he said.

Dorothea Costa, a teacher, works five days a week but would like to work three. She juggles charity work, parenting and her social life with working up to 40 hours a week.

''I have to work full time at this stage because I've got a mortgage, I've got a lot of expenses with my son in high school and I'm a single parent,'' Ms Costa said. ''I couldn't live on less, but it's hard to keep a balance.''

Niamh Linehan, 24, works three days a week in corporate events but would like to work five. ''I wanted an ongoing position and this was the only ongoing position with a firm that the [temping] agency had … I'd like to have a bit more consistency so I know exactly what kind of money will be coming in each week.''

The survey of 1786 people showed just one in five worked their preferred hours. Eighty per cent of people clocking up more than 40 hours wanted to work less. Sixty per cent of part-time workers wanted to work more.

Mr Bandt said workplace ''flexibility'' had turned into unsustainable over- and underemployment. "It's time for government to start ensuring a fairer spread of working hours, so those who want to work more can, and that those who don't, don't have to," he said.

However, business groups warned against the ''straitjacket'' example of regulated European economies, and said the French government had since tried to ditch the 35-hour week.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's workplace director, David Gregory, said reducing standard working hours would worsen the skills shortage, and increase costs to business with each extra staff member that had to be hired.

Mr Denniss said: ''Having happy, productive, retained workers is far more important for the productivity of the country … than short-term attempts to keep wages bills down by relying on lots of unpaid overtime, burning out your employees.''

The Australia Institute report, Long Time, No See, says new employees should be told about a company's ''work-hours culture'' when offered a job.

''Most people know what their wage is going to be before they start. But if you don't know what the hours are going to be, you can't figure out your hourly rate,'' Mr Denniss said.

Instead of an annual pay rise, staff could be offered the equivalent cut in working hours, he said.