In spite of the reasons for limited working hours, too many of us proudly spend longer at work than at home, assuming that long days guarantee advancement, worshipping the clock as a perverse measure of achievement.
Yet for many workers, particularly those in offices, the time spent on the job bears little relationship to how much work gets done, how many clients are helped, or how much business is drummed up.
An avalanche of research shows that even very long hours do little except increase errors, but such is our clock-centred work culture that time remains the dominant source of competitive evaluation. I worked the longest, therefore I am the hardest worker, the best, the most valuable.
Even if employment law says ordinary working hours are 38 a week, the numbers show it is a small minority of workers who give their employers only that time.
Of Australia’s full-time workers, 64 per cent spend 40 hours or more a week on the job, according to last year’s labour force numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. While men are the worst at overworking – 70 per cent – more than half of women do it too, or 52 per cent.
Only a third of Australian full-timers work about the hours the law defaults as those to be expected. Only a minority experience the benefit of the fight behind Labour Day.
Virtually no workers are shirking their employers on this measure; only 2 per cent of full-time workers are clocking fewer than 35 hours a week.
True it is that Australians are not the world’s longest-working, and we are far from oppressed. Those in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and the US all spend more hours on the job than we do. Australia is, in fact, under the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the club for the rich economies.
But this is one metric at which we should aim to be the lowest, working the fewest hours for the greatest economic returns.
The shortest working country in the rich world is Germany. On average, its workers worked 1366 hours in 2014, a total only 83 per cent of the Australian equivalent, 1644.
Yet for all the comparatively little that Germans work, it doesn’t harm their income. In fact, they earn more than us for less work on one measure (gross domestic product per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity, calculated by the OECD). In 2014, its GDP per person was $46,393, to Australia’s $45,937.
No doubt there are many factors and explanations for why Germany manages such a high income with such low working hours. And Australia is hardly the worst; we earn more for less work than the British, for instance.
My point only is that working longer hours is not required for either higher national incomes or personal enrichment. It’s certainly not the most obvious way to a happy life, unless you’re most happiest at your desk.
One of the ways to bring Labour Day into the 21st century is to fight the pointless urge to stay at the office when your day’s work is done.
Running down the clock is particularly infuriating for the early arriver, who gets to work before most colleagues but still wrestles with an unjustified fear of leaving before them. In the name of sanity, just go, and may the gods strike down any boss who glances at the clock when an early-bird worker bids farewell. Technology allows you to be called on if something urgent comes up.
My life at a commercial law firm, if you can call it a life, was doomed from the moment its computers starting showing a graph comparing my monthly time billings with the firm’s target for me, silently menacing me to stay at work until the two lines met. Time billing perversely rewards those who take longer to complete a task rather than those who can do it most efficiently.
Dropping time billing should be part of the next workers’ emancipation. For those of us not required to hold down the fort, a better rule than working by the clock is working by the work: do it, then leave.