30 July 2002


“ For an increasing number of workers, irrespective of the nature of the work they do, work - and the need to make a living - is interfering in their ability to lead a healthy, balanced life.”

— Andrew Little,
National Secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union

For a full list of this year’s EEO Trust Work/Life awards, go to here

Work / Life Balance

ANDREW LITTLE, National Secretary of NZ’s largest trade union — the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union — observes that “work/life balance” policies have become very fashionable in Human Resources circles in recent years. He asks: Is it just another HR fad? Or are there any solutions emerging that are actually addressing the problem?

Last week, Little gave a “worker perspective” to the “Work/Life Balance Conference” in Auckland. He believes the fact that our society has organised itself in such a way that we have to have a conference on balancing work and life “... ought to send a shudder down our collective spine.”

Here are some excerpts from his speech.

  • It is clear from a growing body of evidence that, at least in the Western world, wage and salary earners are working longer hours. Research from Europe suggests that a rapidly growing proportion of full-time workers are working an average of between 45 and 50 hours a week. Recent official statistics from the UK show one in six people now working more than 48 hours a week and one in ten men are working more than 55 hours a week.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that many traditional blue-collar workers, who tend to be paid on an overtime basis, routinely work these sorts of hours. Many traditional white-collar workers, who tend to be paid on a salary and therefore who are not paid extra for working overtime, are routinely working more than 50 hours a week.

  • But it is not just the fact that long hours are being worked that is of concern. The nature of work, people’s engagement with it and what they take away from work in their non-working hours are also important. In this respect, health statistics show an increase over the past 10-15 years in stress-related conditions, musculoskeletal disorders, etc. There is greater reported use of therapeutic drugs for anxiety and depression and related conditions.

    It might be possible to say about some of these health conditions that we have simply become more aware of them, and certainly more aware of how to treat them. And it is also possible to say that the increased incidence of some of these conditions might be related to factors other than work. But the significant increase in these conditions must also be seen in the context of significant changes in the way that a lot of work is done. Specifically, more information is processed electronically, more manufacturing operational tasks have been automated and are controlled by sitting at a console, and the advent of operations such as call centres has introduced a type of work that did not exist before.

  • A combination of individuals’ economic needs, of the impact of technology on modern day work, and of our individual and collective expectations for a certain standard of living, have converged to put work at a place in society which is now challenging the value and importance of people in society.

    This is not what we were led to believe would happen 25 or more years ago. Then, we were told that the impending technology revolution would not only free us up, but would also generate sufficient wealth for us to enjoy our extra leisure time. It was predicted, then, that schools would have to train young people in how to use leisure time.

  • At this conference, the EEO Trust will present its work/life balance awards. I looked at the awards made last year, and I was horrified. If these are the best measures that New Zealand business can come up with, then we are in serious trouble. The role that the Trust should be playing is not rewarding these half-measures, but pushing for the real issues to be addressed.

    In my view, many of the measures being taken — and rewarded — are wholly inadequate to deal with the real problem. Indeed, they don’t deal with the problem at all. They merely seek to soften the symptoms. They are simply palliative.

  • The following measures were either considered for awards last year or were given awards as indicative of progress by employers towards a work/life balance at work. They included:

    — Free cappuccinos at work.
    — Mountain bikes available “24 hours a day”.
    — Family visits to work and work functions for families.
    — Massages at work.
    — Blood pressure readings at work funded by the employer.
    — Vending machines (presumably, for food).
    — Incentives for new mothers to return to work early.
    — Teleworking and remote access to local area networks.
    — Allowing one day a year to work for a charity.

    In fairness, there were some measures listed in some of the employer profiles which deserve positive recognition. Two such measures were special leave for new fathers and unlimited sick and domestic leave for personal or family sickness.

  • I find it difficult to see how access to free cappuccinos in the workplace could possibly be seen as addressing the problem of work organisation and excessive working hours. Free cappuccinos, like massages at work and blood pressure readings, are about accommodating a culture of excessive work demand.

    Having a family visiting space at work seems the ultimate perversity. I am sure if you asked most families who avail themselves of such measures, you would find that they would prefer to have the working family member at home or down at the park or on the beach rather than the family having to see them at work.

  • It is wrong, in my view, for the EEO Trust to be celebrating palliative measures. They are practices that reinforce an unhealthy approach to work, rather than promote a healthy balance in life.

    If we are serious about ensuring a work/life balance, then it is work that needs to be organised in such a way that it is humanly possible for people to do it, it is economically viable to do it and it can be done without compromising personal and family responsibilities.

    Let’s focus on fitting the work around people, rather than jamming people into bad work patterns.

  • In this day and age, less work is based on brawn and more work is based on using the brain. Workers are increasingly required to make a range of decisions and judgements on behalf of their employer. But the brain can’t be used continuously or excessively. It needs adequate rest.

    Fitting work around this basic need is critical. The obvious business benefit is a more refreshed workforce, capable of taking on tasks on a sustainable or enduring basis. It probably means better decisions and judgement. It must also mean a workforce that has a greater degree of goodwill and a greater commitment to the business.

    But the benefits of good work organisation don’t just accrue to business. The community as a whole benefits. Working people who are able not only to fulfil their work obligations but also to fulfil social needs such as being with their family and friends, and engaging in social activities such as sport and church, strengthen our communities.

  • Ultimately, we are talking about people fulfilling their basic role of citizenship. It is about maintaining our social capital. People who are engaged with their community not just through work but through their own personal activities are more able to contribute to that community. Having an employer-sanctioned one day a year in which to perform charitable works does not, in my view, cut the mustard.

  • The union movement’s claim, during the recent election campaign and before, for four weeks annual leave is aimed at ensuring that everybody has access to more leisure and personal time to rest and recuperate from longer hours at work.

    It will be interesting to see over the next couple of years how many employers who profess to have an interest in work/life balance measures will look at current leave entitlements and increase them to allow for additional rest and recuperation.

    Leave is not the only issue. For some operations and jobs in which employees work extended periods (for example, 12 hour shifts) there need to be adequate breaks at work. For continuous processes, this means having adequate staff available to ensure that everyone gets to have a break. For sedentary roles, it means structuring, and providing facilities for, breaks from work.

  • Employers need to be aware that the claim for four weeks leave is only one remedy for these issues. Internationally, unions are raising concerns about the speeding up of work and the effect this has on employees. The issue becomes even more important against the background of the ageing workforce in the Western world.

    Employers may find that more than just economic factors will drive what happens in this area of employee relations and business practice. The new government has, through its coalition arrangements, promised a Commission for the Family. This is in response to at least two political parties calling for either a Commission for the Family or an inquiry into the family.

    I welcome the fact that these issues will now get some attention from the public policy process. The term “family” needs to be broadly understood; it is not just Mum and/or Dad and a couple of kids. It is the full range of household arrangements in which people live and that make up our diverse society. If the role of the Commission is to provide a framework within which we can look at institutions and practices in our communities, including private sector conduct, and their impact on families and households, then the prospect of the Commission is to be welcomed.

    If it looks at how work is affecting the extent to which people are able to contribute to our social infrastructure, then it will be a worthwhile enterprise.

  • The challenge will be for a political party like United Future to be bold enough to accept that significant changes might be needed if we are to reinstate greater social cohesion in New Zealand.

    If we are serious about addressing the issue, then we need to be prepared to be radical. The challenge lies not only with politicians to be bold enough to promote the necessary kinds of changes. The challenge ultimately lies with employers; it is employers who will make the decisions. Employers will decide what kind of leadership they collectively are prepared to show in ensuring a healthy future for business and our communities.

    The union movement looks forward to the debate. You can be sure that we will be taking a vocal part.

    Source — excerpts from “A Worker’s Perspective Of Work/Life Balance Policies” by Andrew Little, Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union speaking to the Work/Life Balance Conference, Waipuna International Hotel, 22 August 2002. Full speech available from


  • The Jobs Research Trust — a not-for-profit charitable trust constituted in 1994.
    We are funded by sustaining grants and donations. Yes, you can help.