Sunday, October 4, 2015

Is work-life balance a big problem in Australia?

There was a time, not long ago, that I avoided using the term “work-life balance” on the grounds that work is a normal part of life. Writing about work-life balance makes about as much sense as writing about sleep-life balance. But here I am now, writing about work-life balance! Never mind, everyone knows that what I am actually writing about is the balance between work and other aspects of life, including leisure, spending time with family members, and sleeping.

According to the OECD’s Better Life index, work-life balance in Australia is among the worst in the OECD. Australia’s ranking on this criterion is even below that of the United States. The indicators used by the OECD to assess work-life balance are the percentage of employees working very long hours, and time devoted to leisure and personal care. Australia’s ranking is 30/36 on both those indicators.

Do those indicators accurately reflect the impact of hours of work on the well-being of individuals? In order to answer that question it makes sense to look at the way hours of work impact on life satisfaction and other measures of emotional health. The fact that people are working long hours does not necessarily mean that they are irrational, or even that they are choosing to sacrifice some life satisfaction in order to achieve other objectives that are more important to them. They might just like working.

A few years ago, in an update of one of my more popular posts - entitled “How much does over-work affect happiness?” -  I ended up suggesting (not surprisingly) that life satisfaction data might help to answer that question. Since then I have wondered from time to time why I had not seen any studies using Australian survey data to shed light on the issue. I obviously hadn’t looked!

An article by Mark Wooden, Diana Warren and Robert Drago entitled “Working time mismatch and subjective well-being”, published in 2009, uses HILDA panel survey data to examine the relationship between working hours and levels of work and job satisfaction in Australia. The authors found that neither job satisfaction nor life satisfaction varied much with number of hours worked when the number of hours worked was consistent with the preferences of individual workers. That suggests the OECDs work-life balance indicators are not particularly relevant to the well-being of Australian workers.

Wooden et. al. found that the mismatch between the preferred working hours of individuals and their actual working hours has a significant impact on job satisfaction and life satisfaction. Both underemployment and overemployment have similar negative impacts on job satisfaction, but overemployment has larger negative impacts on life satisfaction than does underemployment. The authors suggest that although the absolute impacts on subjective well-being appear small, “the measured impact of overemployment should be viewed as important”, relative to “quite serious events, such as the onset of severe illness or injury”.

More recent research by Natalie Skinner and Barbara Pocock published in the latest Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI 2014) makes use of a flourishing index (the Huppert and So index discussed in my last post) encompassing characteristics of positive mental health such as optimism, resilience and competence. The survey results suggest that the rate of flourishing among Australian workers is higher than that for European workers. The difference is particularly marked for women workers, with 41% estimated to be flourishing in Australia, compared with only 33% in EU countries. I wonder how that can be explained.

The authors also found that rates of flourishing do not vary with length of work hours, but do vary according to whether working hours fit with the preferences of individual workers. The results are depicted in the chart below.

The rates of flourishing are much lower among women who would prefer more work than among the other categories. (The authors also found that working unsocial hours (weekends, evenings/nights) was associated with lower rates of flourishing for men.)

In order to show that mismatch between actual and preferred hours of work is a big problem in Australia it would be necessary to show that working hour mismatches tend to persist over time. In fact, research by Robert Breunig, Xiaodong Gong and Gordon Leslie using the HILDA data base suggests that most working hour mismatch problems are resolved within one year. Full-time workers who prefer to work less are the only group for which this is not true – the persistence of mismatches is just over 50 percent for this group, but declines in a predictable way over longer time periods. The evidence suggests that workers often resolve mismatches when they change employers.

My conclusion is that people who argue that work-life balance is a big problem for the well-being of Australians have been talking through their hats.

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