Working 9-5, it's no way to make a living as Kiwis look for better work-life balance

A growing number of Kiwis are looking for greater flexibility in working hours.

A growing number of Kiwis are looking for greater flexibility in working hours.

The 40-hour week has governed working life since the first Labour government instigated sweeping reforms in 1936. Now it looks as if Kiwis are ready for another shakeup.

Auckland University senior lecturer Helen Delaney, who specialises in research on management and international business, says increasing numbers are questioning the 9-to-5 routine.

A rift is developing, she says, between those who value its security and consistency, and those who find it restrictive and obstructive to their desired lifestyle.

Auckland University senior lecturer in management and international business Helen Delaney says a growing number of ...
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Auckland University senior lecturer in management and international business Helen Delaney says a growing number of businesses were looking at more flexible working arrangements.

"I don't know what the cause of this is, but I would say in the last five or six years there has been a growing willingness and energy to consider alternative forms of work and a greater criticality of options. [People are] looking at who benefits most from the control over our time at work."

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The concept has already been challenged abroad.

Victoria University historian Jim McAloon says even the earliest European settlers were determined to escape the daily ...
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Victoria University historian Jim McAloon says even the earliest European settlers were determined to escape the daily grind of the homeland.

France currently has a statutory 35-hour week and recently legislated that companies with 50 or more employees are not entitled to send emails out of working hours.

In Sweden, a six-hour workday is being trialled by some companies.

Auckland University associate professor in psychology Helena Thomas says employee burnout is a serious threat to productivity
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Auckland University associate professor in psychology Helena Thomas says employee burnout is a serious threat to productivity

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the most recent census shows most people still work between 40 and 49 hours a week.

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It would not be the first time Kiwis have sought change. Historian Jim McAloon says it was the intention among the earliest European settlers to escape the daily grind of their homelands.

He recounts the story of Samuel Parnell, a Petone carpenter working in the 1840s: "[His] employer was taking him on to build a store. Parnell said, 'Yes – but it's eight hours a day'. The employer said, 'The rule of London is 10 hours a day'. Parnell said, 'We're not in London'."

Xero head of government relations Grant Anderson says employees adapt well to more flexible working hours, while ...
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Xero head of government relations Grant Anderson says employees adapt well to more flexible working hours, while managers struggle.

Fast forward to today, with technology opening up new avenues and greater expectations of work-life balance, has the time come for Kiwis to reconsider again what a standard working week should be?

ENSHRINED IN HABIT

The 40-hour working week seems more enshrined in habit than law.

MBIE Manager Employment Relations Policy Jivan Grewal says Government closely monitor trials and changes abroad to ...
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MBIE Manager Employment Relations Policy Jivan Grewal says Government closely monitor trials and changes abroad to inform policy decisions on labour markets.

Regulations in the Minimum Wage Act 1982 state that the maximum number of hours in an employment agreement is 40 a week, restricted to five days, unless agreed otherwise.

Recent amendments focus on providing flexibility, including to the Employment Relations Act in 2000, which allows employees to request different hours or days of work, and requires employers to consider requests.

Despite this, Delaney says the power to instigate flexible working practices is coming from organisations, not workers.

Manson Marine and Engineering Ltd general manager Jamie Logan says if everyone were to adopt a shorter working week, it ...
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Manson Marine and Engineering Ltd general manager Jamie Logan says if everyone were to adopt a shorter working week, it would work well.

"Those organisations are in the minority, but there is a growing curiosity among New Zealand business to start altering their mindset about how to organise work."

There are advantages to flexibility, according to Auckland University associate professor in psychology Helena Thomas.

Specialising in employee attitudes and employee-employer relations, Thomas says one of the biggest predictors of positive work outcomes is autonomy. Workers respond well when they have more say over how and when they work.

Productivity Commission director of economics and research Paul Conway says Kiwis rely too heavily on working extra ...
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Productivity Commission director of economics and research Paul Conway says Kiwis rely too heavily on working extra hours to achieve better lives

However, you cannot ignore the advantages of having employees in the same place at the same time.

"There is research saying those little interactions we have and those opportunities to discuss the weekend, those really facilitate getting tasks done. We have to be careful that if we let people become too autonomous you may lose a lot of peoples' willingness to work together," Thomas says.

Some organisations were combating this by creating reduced core working hours when employees must be in the office, Thomas says.

OUTDATED IN A SMART ECONOMY?

Thomas says while service, retail and hospitality hours were dictated by demand, this is not the case for those in the knowledge or tech sector.

In fact, she predicts in the future employers in these areas may do away with the concept of the 9-to-5 altogether.

Kiwi company Xero has been operating for 10 years, during which time it has grown from four employees to 1500 worldwide.

Head of government relations Grant Anderson says the company has been offering flexible work arrangements since its creation, and the strategy was going from strength to strength.

"We end up with people who are able to arrange their hours around the pursuits they would like to do."

Work is measured by outputs, not hours worked, but this rarely results in box ticking by employees.

"It does happen, but the key to controlling that is the hiring process in the first place ... We try and weed out all those people who do not suit the culture before they get in the door."

In Anderson's experience, when other companies test more flexible systems, it is not employees that create issues, but management, who find it difficult to stop micro-managing practices associated with timekeeping.

The concept is beginning to make headway in various government departments, Anderson says, but reversing an ingrained culture of timekeeping was difficult.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) manager of employment relations policy Jivan Grewal says the Government monitors international trends to inform labour market policy.

"OECD data shows us that the average annual working hours since the 1980s have been generally declining across the OECD, which is comparable to New Zealand," he says.

"We are also aware of other countries using, or trialling, different working hours' arrangements. France currently has a statutory 35-hour working week, but also has high levels of overtime work."

A large part of future-proofing policy would depend on new technologies, according to Grewal.

"The extent to which this will occur and impact New Zealand is uncertain, as it is worldwide," he said.

Breaking away from the 9-to-5 is not confined to the smart sector however, as witnessed in Auckland firm Manson Marine and Engineering.

Manson Marine instigated a four-day working week once a month, and general manager Jamie Logan said the extra day off had advantages for morale and engagement.

"I really believe if everyone was on the same page it would work awesome, but when you're in business and all of your customers still want stuff done on Friday, that's when it can get hard."

TIME TO WORK SMARTER, NOT LONGER

Productivity Commission director Paul Conway considers himself an evangelist for working smarter, not harder, and says Kiwis have a history of relying on longer hours to increase their income and work output.

He points to the OECD Better Life Index, where Kiwis rank well across a number of wellbeing indicators, but poorly on incomes and work-life balance.

"New Zealanders are good at working harder, but if we lifted productively and worked a bit smarter, it opens up a whole range of opportunities. To work less, for example."

Kiwis' poor productivity are reflected in figures from Statistics NZ, which show a dip in labour productivity during the most recent economic cycle, increasing only 0.8 per cent between 2008 and 2015.

KIWIS OUT OF TOUCH?

Psychologist Helena Thomas says people could learn a lot from attitudes abroad.

In Scandinavia, people are seen as ineffective or disorganised if they work beyond their contracted hours, rather than dedicated.

"Here there can be that really macho thing of having worked the whole weekend.It's a funny reverse in places like Scandinavia, where if people are still in the office at the end of their 37.5-hour week, or if people are still in work after 5pm, a colleague will come up as they are going and ask, 'Are you having a problem with your work?' or 'Are you not getting through it? What's wrong?' "

This difference should not be ignored, Thomas says, with burnout a serious issue threatening productivity.

The Ministry of Health links long working hours with poor mental health, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and a greater likelihood to be involved in accidents.

 - Stuff

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