This trend not only challenges work-life balance, the centre’s research says it can reduce family incomes and weaken consumer spending in an era of wage stagnation, underemployment and higher cost-of-living pressures. It is now 35 years since the standard working week was reduced to 38 hours in Australia, but the historic progress made during the postwar era “has ground to a halt in the last generation,” the report said.
To end what he describes as an epidemic of “time theft”, Centre for Future Work researcher Bill Browne says regulators need to enforce rules on maximum work hours and allow people more choice to refuse overtime and to work shorter hours. Individual workers also have a role to play in demanding respect for their right to leisure time.
Which is what Mr Baldinu, 38, did after he realised he was starting to fall into an unhealthy pattern of working on his laptop after hours.
His employer, Ernst and Young, had introduced a new policy that gave him the option of moving out of his hotel and into a more relaxed home setting to encourage a better work-life balance.
He found a place with a kitchen on Airbnb, so he was able to cook his own meals. It was also close to cafes, bars, shops and a gym.
“Because it felt like I was actually living in Canberra, it shifted my mindset to engage more with the city to do more things outside of work. It helped being in a more homely environment. It was a way to mentally switch off,” he says.
“That helped me a lot with work-life balance. When I was sitting in my hotel room and working at night and not doing anything else, I was not engaging in life outside work.”
After Mr Baldinu made friends in Canberra and started going out at night, he noticed his colleagues kept working at night and ordering takeaway meals in their hotel rooms.
“I had a colleague who would constantly be working into the night and checking emails,” he says.
“The nature of corporate jobs is that there will always be something to do. So everybody from the most junior staff to the highest partner could work 24/7.”
Since returning home to Sydney last year, he has set strict boundaries and refuses to work from home.
“I try not to associate my home with work. I would rather keep working in the office until midnight if I have a deadline to meet, so I don’t open my laptop at home,” he says.
“It stops work filtering into my personal life and I feel more productive when I’m [in the office].”
Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic from the University of NSW Business School has conducted research on constant connectivity and describes it as an “epidemic” that is causing burnout and mental health problems in the workforce.
“We have seen many cases of people who are burning out and some having a complete nervous breakdown,” she says.
Her research paper documents workers who say they are emailing work colleagues at 2am or 3am and who say they no longer feel like they have a private life. They take their mobile phone everywhere and accept calls “whenever”.
One study participant said the constant use of mobile phones and laptops was addictive.
“It’s like a drug almost, that you feel you have to respond. It’s nothing for me to still be messaging people late at night or checking my phone at 4am. I’m worried that I might miss something, but it’s just ridiculous isn’t it, I mean no one is dying,” the HR director told researchers.
An IT designer stepped back from the industry because she found her work habits were hurting her relationships and family life: “I find that the technology fills me up and I feel like I’ve been eating garbage when I’ve been on my computer all day, whereas if I just sit and think quietly, I feel like I’ve had a proper meal for my brain,” she said.
It is not sustainable for people to keep waking in the early morning hours to check emails, according to Ms Cecez-Kecmanovic. Individuals need to set their own boundaries and restrict the time they are connected to smartphones and computers.
European companies have stepped in with policies to restrict the need for staff to respond to emails after hours.
The general secretary of Unions NSW, Mark Morey, says that for many Australian workers, “smartphones and tablets have completely erased the line between work and leisure”.
“While we are generally paid for a 38-hour week, we find ourselves on call from the moment we wake up,” he says.
“A lot of attention has focused on wage theft, but Australian workers are also struggling with ‘time theft’.”
“Ultimately this means employees have less time for their families, and less time for recreation – leading to more stress and more pressure at home. It’s in everyone’s interest to put some boundaries around the use of smartphones. Technology should serve humanity, instead it becoming a tool for work to penetrate every waking moment.”
Sara Charlesworth, director of the Centre for People, Organisation and Work at RMIT, said colleagues at the School of Management have introduced an email etiquette policy that includes not emailing people out of hours and scheduling emails to be sent during office hours. If Ms Charlesworth writes any emails on a Sunday night, she schedules them to be sent at 9am on Monday. One of her RMIT colleagues had a note in their signature block which mentioned they had two “email-free” days a week.
“A lot of people feel if an email is there that they have to respond to it,” she says. “We really need to recognise people have lives outside of work and we should respect that for other people, even if we don’t for ourselves.”
ACTU secretary Sally McManus says her Scandinavian union colleagues delete any emails they receive during their time off to create a new cultural norm. While positive change is slower to come in Australia, Ms McManus says it is building. A growing focus on wage theft in the hospitality industry has spread to other industries, including the legal profession.
The Australian Financial Review recently ran a series of reports about top-tier law firms reviewing possible underpayment of their graduate lawyers working gruelling hours.
Just as younger people in the hospitality and legal industries have pushed back against wage theft, Ms McManus expects individual workers will start putting limits on their use of technology to avoid “time theft”.
The smartphone which pumps out emails 24/7 has contributed to the “creeping” extension of the work day, making it harder to resist responding to emails after hours.
“It is starting to tell on people in terms of excessive work hours and mental health issues,” Ms McManus says.
“Not being able to switch off from technology and the effect of working excessive hours is not yet fully understood. We are all part of the experiment.”
Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter.