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Work/Life Imbalance

Work/Life Imbalance

Just as climate change is no longer simply a conversation to be had around the barbecue, work/life balance is moving toward its own tipping point

Seals don't balance balls on their noses for fun; they do it for fish. People don't try to achieve work/life balance for fun; they do it to survive.

And it's getting harder. The average hours worked by full-time employees in 2005-6 was 44.1 hours per week (45.4 hours for men and 41.4 hours for women), and 37 percent of them work overtime regularly with a third of that unpaid.

In 1799 the hours for convict labour were set at 50 hours a week - a couple of centuries on they're starting to look like layabouts.

After two years' investigation, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its paper "It's about time: Women, men, work and family" in March, a document which sets out a framework for reform that is intended to underpin improved work/life balance. The paper makes 45 recommendations and "Sets out the beginning of a new social vision for Australia," according to HREOC's president and the acting sex discrimination commissioner John von Doussa.

Just as the climate change issue seems to have reached a tipping point where people stop treating it as a barbecue conversation and start seeing it as a real challenge to be tackled, work/life balance is moving toward its own tipping point.

This comes with the realization - crystallized in the report - that, "A truly prosperous society is one that values time as well as money, whether this be time spent with children or other relatives in leisure activities, time spent voluntarily working within community . . . or time spent meeting day-to-day care needs". Also that "reconciling paid work and family/carer responsibilities is central to the social and economic progress of the nation".

The paper makes for interesting reading, and will liven up the dinner table discussion of many an Australian household - assuming anyone makes it home in time for dinner.

Yet, strangely, not one of the 45 recommendations has anything to do with information technology. This is particularly odd given that computers and communications have the capacity to not only reconnect the communities that the commission believes are being etched away, as people scurry frantically between work and home, but also provide platforms for more flexible work practices.

The IT sector was identified in the report as one area where there was more opportunity for, and evidence of, work/life balance, yet no one in the commission seems to have made the connection that the information technology itself might be a driver.

It's important to recognize, however, that while technology has an important role to play, it is no panacea. To achieve work/life balance there needs to be systemic and attitudinal change also.

If you are a bus driver it's not possible to telecommute, at least until the transponder from the Starship Enterprise materializes, but it should be possible to job share. Law firms, once among the most rigid of employers, are introducing more flexible work practices - Blake Dawson Waldron for example has one in five of its employees (men and women) on some form of formal flexible arrangement. This is not just about keeping women in the workforce, either, it's about meeting the needs of new generation workers who demand more balance, and it's about becoming an employer of choice and snaring the brightest candidates.

As HREOC president von Doussa noted: "If a law firm can successfully implement flexible working for one in five workers then surely it can be implemented in a great number of other workplaces." IT companies for example - or IT departments of large corporations.

The three main struts of HREOC's recommendations are: a call for gender equity; a lifecycle perspective which understands that employees will move in and out of paid and unpaid work at different points in their lives; and the concept of shared work and valued care, which fully acknowledges the true economic value of the $30.5 billion worth of unpaid work which is carried out in Australia.

While HREOC was at pains to explain that balance is not just a women's issue, von Doussa acknowledged that, "Without changes in men's lives, women's quest for equality will forever stall. This is not really about whether women can have it all, but how we can work together to share it all." HREOC's report can be viewed at: www.humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/its_about_time/

Beverley Head is a freelance writer who has been writing about the relationships between people, business and technology for over 20 years.

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