Happiness and work life balance

Happiness and work life balance

The following article is from the Bulletin Magazine:

Longer working hours, commuting hell and rising family tensions: more and more Australians are looking for the ideal work-life balance. A ground-breaking new report provides some answers on how to find it. Roy Eccleston reports.

Jane Browne once had a well-paid job helping to run a Perth company’s personnel department. She worked hard, wore power suits, and thought she liked it. Her kids were less impressed. “I don’t know what you did,” her son Jamie told her later, “but you came home late.”

That’s not an epitaph anyone would want. Now, there are no more late nights at work. The 44-year-old Brown has moved with inventor husband Ron, Jamie, 15, and Imogene, 10, to a big home overlooking an outrageously beautiful stretch of the Tamar River in northern Tasmania. She’s become a part-time school music teacher.

It’s the Browns’ answer to what John Howard once called the barbecue-stopper, and one of the key issues in this year’s federal election: how to strike a balance between work and life, or, put another way, how to be happy. “I’ve made it a priority to keep the balance,” she says. “If the family is happy, it works.”

This family couldn’t look more content as they sit around the fireplace listening to Brown explain how she decided eight years ago to dump her job. “I needed to see myself as successful, the way society wanted me to be,” she recalls. “And I wanted to have that high-paid city job.”

But the workplace was evolving into the more flexible, less certain model of today. The personnel department became human resources. “With the change to a more casual workforce and contracting, it was not the job I used to do,” says Brown. “It used to be caring for people. You used to have long-term employees. You were developing the business with the people.”

So she studied to be a music teacher. “I think if you are going to be a happy person, all the things that are you have to be fulfilled,” Brown says. “The best thing I’ve ever done is teaching. I only wanted to do it part-time.” Her secret for happiness? “Balance,” she says. “For everyone in the family.”

Striking that balance is a struggle for many Australians at a time of evolution and revolution in the way we work. We have a booming national economy that has seen big wage increases, low inflation and strong job growth over the past decade. At the same time, house prices and mortgages have risen steeply and debt levels are high. A poll for The Bulletin last month found 55% of respondents claimed they were no better off after a decade of Howard’s economic growth. Not happy? One reason may be the changing workplace.

A new survey of Australians’ experience of work, by social researcher Professor Barbara Pocock, director of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work and Life and winner of the Society category of The Bulletin/Bayer Smart 100, reveals that only a minority of the nation’s employees work the hours they would like. Fully 43% say they want fewer hours, while 16% want more.

Pocock, with Dr Natalie Skinner and Dr Philippa Williams, this week released their inaugural Australian Work and Life Index, to be updated annually. It finds that nearly two-thirds of people complain that work keeps them from spending the time they would like with family and friends, and more than half say it intrudes into their personal life. More than half say they feel rushed for time.

Despite this, 75% say they’re satisfied with their work-life balance. Yet Pocock points out that this means one in four workers feel their lives are out of kilter, and that number rises significantly when work hours get out of hand. Of those who feel they work too many hours, one in three are dissatisfied with their work-life balance. “I think the big political issue right now is the conditions of work, and the changes in labour regulation in Australia really are very historic,” she says of the move to the more flexible workplace, most lately through WorkChoices. “Control over working time is a critical issue. Those who don’t have control really find it harder.

“I think it connects to happiness – if you have to give a lot of hours reluctantly to a task you’re not enjoying and don’t feel secure, and that affects the people you love, then the research says your happiness is likely to be affected.”

Pocock’s study has mixed messages for the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd, who are facing voters unsure about the work laws. She finds that 86% of us have job satisfaction, but nearly a third feel insecure about the future of their job, and more than half feel overloaded.

While Jane Brown is preparing for her 15-minute rural drive to school in Launceston, Shah Chaudari is on the train from the Gold Coast to Brisbane, where he is a coal industry mining engineer. As we sit on the crowded 6.55am from Robina, bound for the Sunshine State’s booming capital, Chaudari reflects on what was supposed to be a brilliant lifestyle plan to live near the beach but work in the city.

He bought a big rural block on the coast, rented out his Brisbane property, and began catching the train. But the 27-year-old found he was becoming less happy, not more, with his dream. The problem was the commute on what locals call the Bombay Express, the crowded train between coast and capital.

“I’m moving to Brisbane in October because I’m sick of catching the train,” Chaudari says, as fellow passengers are forced to sit on the floor. “I sold my block of land.” It was a tough decision, but Chaudari’s experience with the rail service – which the Beattie government is finally beginning to upgrade – means he’d struggle to get a seat for the 75-minute trip to the city. “I’d be sitting on the floor all day,” he says.

Down the aisle, 42-year-old finance industry worker Robert Garland says the road to Brisbane is no better. “Madness,” he says. “You dice with death.” So he’s up at 5am to drive to the train terminal to grab a seat, and gets home at about 7.30pm. “You’re knackered,” says Garland, explaining how he has little time or energy for evening activity during the week.

“It’s all focused on work, everything else is a bonus. I enjoy what I do but I’d like to be doing other things … I’ve just made a commitment to putting my head down for the near future – it’s what you’ve got to do to get ahead.”

Long commutes, whether it’s a Queensland train ride or the stop-start nightmare of Parramatta Road in Sydney or Sydney Road in Melbourne, add to the stress because they take away what economic growth can’t replace – time. Just how much this is making us unhappy is a difficult question, because over many years Australians – about seven in 10 – have told pollsters they’re a happy bunch.

The happiest tend to be married couples without kids, followed by couples with kids. But one crucial ingredient is a job. With unemployment at extremely low levels, that ought to be a big tick for the Howard government. As well, more money may also make you happier; the 2001 National Health Survey showed that 64% of low-income earners were happy with their lives, while 86% of the high-income earners were.

But happiness can be complicated. ANU economist Andrew Leigh says his research with a colleague located 13 international surveys, and Australia consistently ranked in the top tier of nations for happiness. In the first survey he found (1948) and the most recent (2005), Australia was the happiest country. In the Erasmus University Rotterdam’s world data base of happiness, our 7.3 out of 10 is among the top scores.

But the human tendency to be happy means even big improvements in our environment may not make us more satisfied, Leigh says. After all, we’ve been reporting similar levels of satisfaction or happiness since the 1950s, suggesting that decades of economic growth haven’t made us happier. Perhaps we tend to adapt to our new wealth once it’s passed a certain level.

Another brake on happiness is that it’s not just about what we have got, but what others have. Pocock says it doesn’t matter if we have three TVs – if your neighbour has four, you may feel less happy.

But traffic jams and crowded trains steal happiness. In a US study, 1000 women were asked to rank 19 daily activities on the basis of how much happiness they produced. The top was sex and the last was commuting. Leigh says it is plausible that longer working hours are making us less happy with our jobs. “What matters most for workers is control of their hours. If they have control, some people won’t mind working long hours. But for many, such as shift workers, there aren’t any options.”

Happiness also depends on strong social networks, says Pocock. “What we’re seeing is the greater reach of work into our community relationships, and our social and friendship networks. The long-term costs of not allowing enough time for those could be quite significant. It’s a warning to John Howard that while wealth is growing, change is bringing strains.”

It’s a concern reinforced by official statistics last month showing that a third of Australian employees regularly worked “unsocial” hours with shifts overlapping the period between 7pm and 7am.

Pocock thinks women who are choosing part-time work to try to balance finances and family are particularly stressed. “They’re the shock-absorbers,” she says, “and I think a growing proportion is reacting negatively with higher stress levels, less happiness with relationships and less capacity to socially connect. They’re very pressed for time.” Her findings dovetail with recent research by Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre, where Dr Brigid van Wanrooy looked at the trend to longer hours, with Australia one of the few nations where about a fifth of workers work more than 50 hours a week.

Van Wanrooy wanted to know if people wanted to work long hours. She says her three-year study found the answer was generally no. Men in full-time jobs averaged 47 hours a week but wanted 40, she says. Women working full-time averaged 43 hours but wanted between 28 and 30.

Work hours increased dramatically through the 1990s but have levelled off. The federal government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency says that in 1974, one in 18 men worked more than 11 hours a day, compared with one in eight in 1997. One in six women reported feeling rushed in 1974 but seven in eight felt more frantic in 1997.

Women like Brown – living in Tasmania, with no small kids, and working part-time hours of about 16 hours a week or less – are some of the least rushed and happiest workers in the country, according to Pocock’s findings.

Who does it toughest? First, there’s the full-time male worker on the eastern seaboard, possibly a professional or a tradesman, who works 60 hours a week or more, with small kids and a long commute. Women with kids who work long part-time hours are also under pressure – they are incredibly pressed for time, often working 30 hours and then being expected to hold the household together.

There’s no great difference between the states. Queensland turns out to be the worst for finding time to spend with friends and family, while Tasmanians are least rushed. South Australians report less interference from work in their lives. The problems are no better for country folk, or the self-employed.

But the highly educated and qualified, such as managers, professionals, community workers and technical and trades workers, are all more likely to be hit by work interference at home, with salespeople and administration staff least bothered by it. Pocock says a third of managers, who tend to embrace the long-hours culture, are unhappy with their work-life balance.

Pocock says the long hours are toxic – for the individual and maybe for the broader community. “The science is pretty convincing: you do long hours and you are less productive, more hazardous on the road and may suffer health consequences,” she says. In her study, people dissatisfied with their balance used more medicines and made more trips to the doctor.

Why are hours so long, if workers don’t like it? Pocock argues that technology has broken down barriers between work and home and – unless you’re a truck driver or airline pilot – there are no measures to hold long hours in check. Understaffing also forces others to work longer, she says. And some do want to work longer, to build wealth (although one recent survey found only half of workers believed they were paid for extra hours).

There’s no easy solution. Cutting your commute to less than five hours a week would be good, but the best move would be to secure greater flexibility and control, Pocock says. “Get a good fit between how you want to work and your actual hours. And get a good boss.” Also question if your aspirations are driving a work-spend cycle that cannot lead to happiness.

Pocock says philosophers believe happiness lies in three things: having something to look forward to, someone to love, and something to do. The last bit is where work comes in, and 60% of Australians say they would work even if they didn’t need the money. Happiness needs certain work elements: “One of them is security, feeling confident not just in your income, but your hours and your voice and your respect at work. If workers are insecure, lacking respect and overloaded at work – and a significant number in our survey were all of those things – then that will affect our long-term happiness.”

Andrew Gutteridge, who co-founded the Brisbane architecture firm Arkhefield, is a convert to the benefits of reasonable hours, for himself and his business. The 45-year-old says the firm has cut back to a maximum of 42 hours a week in a bid to attract and retain staff.

“We tell people we don’t work weekends and we don’t work long hours,” Gutteridge says. “That works against us sometimes but we’re setting up the culture of the office to have work-life balance.” He says his own life was way out of whack until about three years ago.

“We were massively stressed, totally out of control.” He and his partner hired a business manager and began delegating. Gutteridge cut his own work hours so he could get home to read to his kids. His wife is relieved, he says.

“The other day she saw this photograph of her pregnant with our son, who’s now about to turn four,” he recalls, looking relaxed at a leisurely Friday lunch in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. “And her line was, ‘You were such a prick. I hated you. This photo of you sitting beside me … you were so unsupportive, so difficult, and so hard to be with. Now you’re a gem.’

If you’d like to know more about The Happiness Institute’s “Happiness @ Work” programs, which address work-life balance, call 02 9221 3306 or email info@thehappinessinstitute.com.