Stressed and badly managed - today's workforce

Stressed and badly managed - today's workforce

Companies are working their employees too hard. Staff are coming into the office early, staying back late, and working on weekends. The working week has risen to more than 50 hours. Employees are not taking their annual leave for fear of losing their jobs or not getting the next promotion.

But, in contrast, sick leave is on the rise - people are stressed, tired, and not seeing enough of their families. The well-being of staff is just not a priority for employers - they are too busy concentrating on the bottom line and the latest round of downsizing.

These are the sentiments coming from psychologists, unions, industrial relations officers, workers, the government, and company management. But this has been the case for some time and when change is occurring at a snail's pace the future is looking bleak.

If you are lucky you are working for a forward-thinking company, one who values their staff and sees their employees as a number one priority. Where you enjoy such perks as flexible working hours, an inhouse gym, free lunch every day, seminars on good health practices, car parking, little or no overtime, individual attention, performance bonuses, RDOs and you are encouraged to take annual leave.

But the likelihood is that you aren't.

A survey recently conducted by See Australia, a government-funded iniative designed to increase domestic tourism, has found that 42 per cent of Australian workers did not take any of their annual leave last year. Further still, 40 per cent of the workers surveyed only used part of their annual leave entitlements.

Employees are citing fear of losing their jobs and wanting to stockpile the money for security reasons as why they are not taking leave. The pressure placed on people in the workforce is enormous, more than it has ever been, which has prompted unions to take action. According to the ACTU, the average Australian employee has worked more than 40 hours a week since the mid 1980s.

"One quarter of Australian full-time workers currently spend more than 49 hours a week at work - a figure that has risen by 25 per cent in the last decade. What is perhaps more alarming is that the number of people working more than 60 hours per week between 1978 and 1995 increased by 206 per cent," says Graham Perry, manager of See Australia.

Jackie Kelly, Minister for Sport and Tourism, is encouraging Australians to take a holiday by funding the See Australia campaign. Kelly says she is surprised at the survey's results which show we are working longer and harder than ever before.

"People feel that they can't leave work," says Kelly. "The pressure on people is higher than ever and they feel that if they take time off everything will fall down."

Reasons for working overtime seem to differ depending on the industry. In IT, people are working overtime because skilled staff are hard to find. Companies are short staffed and expect what staff they have to manage the workload. This is aggravated by the nature of the industry where it is common to be on call overnight and on weekends.

Michael Butler, executive officer at Information Technology Professional Services (ITPA), says complaints about hours of work is the main reason members contact the union.

"People are working between 40 and 50 hours a week and it is a growing issue. The issue of hours of work is one of the most common and important issues we deal with. People want to balance their work requirement with their family life," says Butler.

"The amount of hours people are working is exacerbated in the IT industry as a lot of jobs require staff to be on standby or on call, which means they may receive calls while having dinner at home with their families. It is very intrusive. And now the technology is there for you to take your work home with you."

Geoff Derrick, the NSW Secretary of the Finance Sector Union, believes job security is a large issue within the finance industry and is one of the main reasons people work overtime. He also cites new technologies, new management styles and globalisation as contributing factors.

"People are working at enormous levels and there is incredible amounts of unpaid overtime. About two thirds of all overtime in the finance sector is unpaid," says Derrick. "In finance, the business is judged on a daily basis through the ASX. Shareholder is king, and the shareholders don't really care about spending money on making staff happy."

And then there is the people who work overtime because they want to work hard and feel that they are doing a good job. Justine McCarthy, industrial officer for the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers Australia (APESMA), says while overtime comes with being a professional, the problem is that people are consistently working overtime and not being compensated accordingly.

"I think it is unfair to do overtime if it is consistent and excessive and not compensated accordingly, such as time in lieu, leave or as a bonus. The problem is that employers are understaffed and expect their staff to make up the hours. An employee has a certain job and they are expected to do that, however long it takes," says McCarthy, "and employees want to do a reasonable job. I think in part they are scared of losing their jobs, or not being promoted, but mainly I think people do want to work hard and they want to do a reasonable job."

The effects of not taking a break from work are reaching everyone, from the workers to their families, and further still, to the community, where sporting clubs and community groups are struggling to find members because people simply do not have the time.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics an increasing number of children are growing up in families where both parents work full time, with the mother and father working an average of 38 and 45 hours a week respectively, which means many parents are missing out on spending time with their children.

The effects of not taking holidays are having adverse effects on the health and safety of workers. In 1997, the ACTU OHS Unit conducted a national survey on stress at work. The survey found that over one in four respondents (26.5 per cent) had taken time off work for stress. The survey also found that the major causes of stress at work are lack of consultation and communication with management, job insecurity and increased workloads. People reported a range of health symptoms including headaches, continual tiredness, and feeling depressed and angry.

One quarter of those surveyed reported that working arrangements had contributed to accidents or near misses at work. This was highest in manufacturing (39 per cent). The ACTU estimates that fatigue costs between 1 and 1.7 billion dollars per year in accidents and injuries. Added to that is the fact that long working hours have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and can worsen existing medical problems including diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension, asthma and digestive problems.

"Increased work pressures, long hours, and unsympathetic management has led to a blow out in stress-related workers compensation claims. It means there is a deterioration in personal life. It is why places such as local sporting clubs, churches, Lion and such groups, are struggling to get active members - people just don't have the time," says Derrick.

"Too many Australians seem to have forgotten how to take a holiday. Holidays are needed to recharge and refresh. And it will make you more productive. They are good for your health and good for the health of your families," says Kelly.

If a change is going to occur, it will have to come from management. Dr Bruce Crowe, an organisational psychologist, has been advising companies to adopt good work practices, saying working overtime or not taking a break is not good for the worker and not good for the company, as it decreases health and productivity.

"If you keep working without taking a break then you burnout," Crowe says. "You need too much concentration at work and if you don't take a break then you go stale - there is no recharge or reorientation. You can be more productive by being in different environments."

In some cases it is the company culture that is resulting in bad working conditions where employers aren't taking an interest in the lives of their employees, aren't encouraging staff to take leave or taking measures to decrease the amount of overtime.

It doesn't help when company culture says you need to be seen working extraordinary hours just to further your career.

"There is this culture where you need to be seen at your desk. There is a lot of peer group pressure, and the need to do overtime, or to be seen to be doing overtime," says APESMA's McCarthy. "This peer group pressure is especially put on graduates who for the first few years are expected to work hard. It really is ridiculous."

See Australia's Perry says one of the alarming finding of its research is that a lot of people, especially males, are feeling guilty about taking time off - they are beginning to see it as a sign of weakness. "They are now seeing their amount of accrued holiday leave as a badge of honour."

Kelly says companies need to encourage staff to take annual leave. "They need to make people feel that it is OK for them to take leave. People need to feel that they aren't indispensable and that they can afford to take leave," says Kelly. "I don't think companies mind staff taking leave but they don't express that to their employees, it is not one of their priorities."

Ron McCallum, Professor of Industrial Law at Sydney University, believes if you are a good employer you will make your employees take their annual leave every two years as it make people more productive.

"You want your staff to be more productive, so employers need to manage annual leave. If you aren't doing this, then you aren't using good management practices. If people don't get holidays, then they will leave for another company and want a payout of 50 hours of annual leave, which is not good for the company. It is in the company's best interests to encourage staff to take their annual leave," says McCallum.

But not all companies are getting it wrong. Organisations such as Hewlett-Packard and Mercantile Mutual have realised the need to keep staff and have put practices in place aimed a reducing staff turnover.

Alan Colvin, human resources manager of Hewlett-Packard, says people want to work in a safe and productive environment, be constantly challenged and fairly managed. He says retention issues cannot be solved by cash alone.

"We don't aim to be the highest paying company, but we aim to pay people amongst the leaders in the industry. If you fall in pay then you will lose people, but that being said, money is not the most important thing," says Colvin.

"We emphasise a worklife balance - we try to provide flexible working conditions, which is helped with mobile technologies, we have an onsite gym, we offer a stress course, family leave, we have counsellors, free morning tea every day and car parking. We have had staff who have left only to come back to us because they appreciate those benefits we offer."

Mercantile Mutual has adopted similar strategies as a way of retaining staff and lowering absenteeism. human resources manager Trevor Evans says because of these strategies absenteeism has decreased by 15 per cent.

"We are aiming to achieve a balance in life, with work and family. We give free flu vaccinations before the flu season, free fruit weekly, we run campaigns to encourage a healthy lifestyle, we had a health fair, we encourage staff to use the inhouse gym, and we have made filtered water available to all staff," says Evans.

"We also have flexible working hours, and you can arrange eight weeks leave per year as part of your package. There will always be some people who are married to their desk and are always at work, but staff can't actually accrue more than 40 days leave, and if they do then we encourage them to take time off."

Unfortunately companies with good work practices such as Hewlett-Packard and Mercantile Mutual are in the minority, and it doesn't change the reality that there are still many employees who are working too hard.

Unions such as the Financial Sector Union, APESMA and the ACTU think it will take a change in legislation before significant changes are made in the workforce.

"I think there needs to be award provisions to regulate. Unfortunately, companies won't change unless they are forced to. Look at maternity leave, an award was put in place to stop women being sacked when they had a baby," Butler says. Because of that legislation companies are now keeping their jobs open so women can return to work. "If that award wasn't in place, companies wouldn't change and women would still be getting sacked if they had a baby."

A spokesperson for Peter Reith, Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business declined to comment, saying the department had not seen the results of the survey conducted by See Australia. It appears the Department of Industry, Science and Resources did not pass the results of the survey on to Mr Reith, even though it contained startling information about working conditions in Australia.

The ACTU is currently campaigning for a shorter week. The days of working 38 hours a week are long gone for a lot of professionals, with at least 45 hours extending to 60 hours a week being a more likely scenario.

"Australians are working harder. Where we thought technology would mean more time away from work, instead it has exacerbated the workload. People are working so hard and so fast that they don't have time to plan a holiday," says Perry.

But ITPA's Butler says the outlook is more positive as there is increased awareness of the issue. He believes both people and companies realise that extra time does not mean extra productivity.

"People are asserting themselves more and questioning why they are expected to work such long hours, and it is forcing employers to review their retention strategies."

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