Is overtime detrimental to your health?

Two workers in an office at night. BUSINESS

Government and organisational policies should be strengthened to ensure employees are able to avoid working long hours, other than in case of emergency or exceptional circumstances, according to UniSA research.

Published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, the research by UniSA’s Dr Natalie Skinner and the University of Southern Queensland’s Dr Erich Fein suggests industrial relations legislation should be strengthened to better protect workers, as long hours can have a detrimental effect on their health.

The researchers say a legislative loophole in Australia’s National Employment Standards enables employers to circumvent the limit with ‘reasonable’ requests for longer hours beyond the 38 hour maximum hours set in the National Employment Standards.

“We need stronger provisions so that employees can only be requested to work more than 38 hours if there is an emergency or extraordinary situation,” says Dr Skinner, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Resource Management.

“In the absence of such legislation currently, human resource managers need to protect employees against the harmful health outcomes that might result from long work hours.

“Supervisors and managers should be trained to provide support for employees’ work-life balance.

“This latest research adds further weight to evidence that long work hours are a risk to health and well-being.”

Dr Skinner and Dr Fein’s research paper, Clarifying the effect of work hours on health through work-life conflict, states long hours exert additional pressure on an employee without any financial benefits.

“One of the most common critiques of modern-day work is that it is overbearing, taking up too much time and energy, and negatively impacting on the well-being of individuals, families and communities,” Dr Skinner says.

“Australian full-time workers put in some of the longest hours in the OECD, ranking sixth out of 28 OECD countries, and these extra hours are commonly contributed in unpaid overtime.”

Key points from the research paper are:

  • Work-life conflict functions as a pathway through which work hours affect health.

  • The relationship between work hours and work-life conflict is strongest for women.

  • Regardless of parenting status, high work hours were associated with higher work-life conflict.

  • The relationship between work-life conflict and overall health is strongest for women.

The study found that all workers – regardless of whether they were parents or not – experienced high work-life conflict from long working hours, and this in turn was associated with poor health outcomes.

“At present in Australia a statutory right to request a change in working arrangements, including a reduction in work hours, is only available to certain groups such as parents, carers and older workers or those with a disability,” Dr Skinner says.

“Our findings indicate a universal right to request a flexible work arrangement, such as reduced work hours, would be of benefit to the health and well-being of all working Australians, regardless of their personal circumstances, and that the current Fair Work Act (2009) should be revised accordingly.

“Not only would this be of significant benefit to employed Australians’ well-being, it would further encourage labour force participation, particularly for individuals with caring responsibilities.”