Are New Zealanders overworking?

by Joanne Black / 30 May, 2012
Information overload and increasing demands from employers mean many of us are struggling to cope with the relentless pressures of the job.
Duncan Garner, photo David White

He has covered momentous political events and rarked up politicians on all sides of the House but one thing Duncan Garner hasn’t seen is his daughters, aged 9 and 11, play Saturday sport. He has never had the time. Now Garner, 38, has handed in his notice as TV3’s political editor to take up a new role in December as host of Radio Live’s Drive show from 3.00-6.00pm weekdays. He will walk away from a job he describes as “lovely, fantastic, well-paid and influential, but, my God, you work every living second. “I’ve quit because, to be brutally honest about a brutal job, I am exhausted.”

Garner says when he first started at Parliament’s press gallery in 1995, under then political editor Linda Clark, even going live in the six o’clock bulletin was rare. There was no midday news, no breakfast news, and no websites, texts, emails, blogs or tweets to keep up with, and the only cellphones were fixed in cars. “Our stories were usually no longer than one minute 20 seconds, or one 30, and you were lucky to get more than a couple of political stories in the bulletin on any given day.”

Now, Garner says, his weekdays start about 5.30am when he wakes and starts checking websites on his iPhone. “In any week I could work from 5.30am till about 11pm for four or five days a week then I could do another four or five hours on Saturday and Sunday just to continue to stay ahead of the game – that’s checking websites, checking emails, making phone calls, taking phone calls. The other day I cleared my voice messages and had 56 messages over three days that I had not had time to clear.”

Not so long ago there was a daily news cycle, based around morning newspapers and the mid-evening TV news. “Now there’s a 24-hour news cycle, which is great for the public because if you’re a major media consumer you can get updates on the minute from websites. But for journalists it means the game has changed big time, and to be ahead of your competitors you have to be 24/7. As political editor, which is a major part of daily news, I genuinely don’t sleep that well because of it.” To add to the pressure, he has also been appearing on the Sunday morning show The Nation, although he quit that last Friday over a disagreement.

‘What if I miss something and it’s my fault?’
Garner does not think there is a different way for him to go about being political editor. “[TV3 head of news] Mark Jennings has been completely understanding and has argued at times that I’ve worked too hard and I should look to cut back in some areas if I can, and it might be my fault. “The problem is that you are responsible for your own area, and if I was to pull back and not take it seriously and, God forbid, turn my phone off, for instance, what if I miss something? What if something happened and we’re not ahead of the game and it’s my fault because it’s my area and I’m responsible for it?

“It’s all very easy to say, ‘Take a break’, but even on annual leave or school holidays, we could be at tenpin bowling with the kids and I’ll get a text from a politician saying, ‘Have you got two seconds?’ And my view is that I can’t say, ‘No, because I’m just about to knock out my nine-year-old at tenpin bowling, so can I ring you tomorrow?’ There is no tomorrow in news. Tomorrow’s when you get beaten. It’s just unrelenting. “I love the profession and I’ll still be in radio, but I just need to step away from this level of intensity. “It’s really hard on family life. My wife is a public servant who starts work at 8.30am every day and no one has ever asked her to stay later than 4.30pm when she races off to get our son from daycare, which goes to 5.15pm and charges $10 for every minute you’re not there. I’m not moaning, it’s just the reality.”

Impossible to be on top of it all
Garner is a particularly high-profile representative of a swathe of workers and bosses whose work hours have encroached further and further into their personal lives. In particular, there are jobs where it is simply impossible to be on top of all the information now available online or on social media. There is always one more website to look at and a few tweets to read on Twitter, but if while you are doing that four more emails land in your in-box and your cellphone is ringing, it’s no surprise that even those who spend long hours in the office feel there is always something more they could do.

On top of that, people’s fears about their job security in the uncertain economic environment along with constant change in both public- and private-sector organisations as they seek more efficiencies from fewer resources mean many workers and their managers are feeling the strain. In a Nielsen survey, more than a third of respondents say work pressure is adversely affecting their health. More than 60% say they usually work 40 hours or more, with 8% putting in more than 50 hours.

The rapid adoption of technology means official statistics may be lagging behind actual work practices. A 2010 Department of Labour report, written by Simon Hall, aims to dig behind figures extracted from the Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS), which showed that average hours per worker fell 4.9% between 2004 and 2009 to 33.5 hours a week. The paper notes that up to 40% of that fall might be attributed to a change to the Holidays Act in 2007, which increased annual leave to a minimum of four weeks.

“It is possible, however, that part of the decline is because people are increasingly engaged in work activities away from the office,” Hall wrote. “While these hours should technically still be counted by the HLFS, technological developments have blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time and some people may not be stating these hours. For example, with the rise in the number of people with access to the internet, many people are more easily able to work from home.”

In 2009, 75% of New Zealand households had access to the internet at home, up from 65% in 2006. Furthermore, a quarter of people who were employed in 2009 used the internet to work from home, up from 20% in 2006. And the ability to log in to work sites remotely, along with the use of cellphones and social media, means the line between work and personal life is increasingly being fudged.

The long-hours workers
Even before internet use at home accelerated, a 2008 paper by the Department of Labour showed that 30% of full timers were working at least 50 hours a week. At that time, three-quarters of long-hours workers were men. The largest group of long-hours workers were those with no qualifications. However, although they were a smaller group, the more qualified workers – such as those with a masters degree or PhD – were much more likely to put in long hours. The report also showed that the higher-income brackets had greater proportions of employees working long hours. The figures don’t tell whether more people are working while away from their workplace, but it seems likely many of them are.

Just this week, the United Nations called on the New Zealand Government to introduce a statutory maximum number of working hours. A UN committee also expressed concern that some collective agreements failed to specify work hours. Department of Labour spokesman Craig Smith says New Zealand’s laws require employers to take “all practicable steps” to provide a safe workplace, and 79% of collective agreements specify the hours of work. The president of the Wellington Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, Richard Stone, says, “The expectation in a lot of work environments is that you are always available and everything is urgent.”

Stone, who sought the views of his team at recruitment company JacksonStone & Partners to respond to questions from the Listener, says they agree that workloads are encroaching not just on home life but on private life when people are on annual or sick leave. “The common view among my staff is that when you go away on annual leave, and we would be a typical business where this would be the case, you have to remain connected because you just can’t turn off for two, three or four weeks. Technology means there is no excuse for not being available.”

Stone says he does not think technology has made life easier. “It’s made us privy to a whole lot of communications that we would never previously have been privy to. Previously we’d have had a phone call or a letter if something was important enough, but you would not have had all the back and forwards that goes on with email, and you certainly would not have been CCed into a large range of other communications. “Seventy per cent of my emails, if only I knew what they said before opening them, I would just delete because they are not critical, they are simply not. If I’ve been away from the office and come in to 60, 70 or 80 emails, it’s very difficult to prioritise them without going into them.” But he also thinks technology feeds a human need to be needed.

“A lot of the answer to the information overload is in the hands of individuals, and the tension is that on the one hand we bleat about being interrupted in our private time, while on the other hand we are quietly flattered by it. It tells us that we’re needed, and we assume from that that we are valued and what we are doing is important.” The technology is also a godsend for allowing people to work away from their office without losing touch and without being left out of important communications.

Blurring the line
Dave Winsborough, managing director of Winsborough, a firm of organisational psychologists, says his company deliberately blurs the line between work and home life. “We say to our staff that if you have clients and so have to be in the office, then of course you are there, but if you don’t have to be there and if you work better at home, then work at home,” he told the Listener by mobile phone while on annual leave in France. “That sounds slack, but I don’t think we are. We just don’t use face time or hours to calculate work, but if you work in a factory then of course it’s different.

“In some of those stressful occupations like the police, the regulations are strict so they limit the time you can do; then you walk away and have time off and that’s as it should be. But in the knowledge industries, workers can be a bit more flexible and hopefully employers can, too. The nature of who we are and the way we are wired demands that we oscillate, that we go up and down, so you work hard sometimes and do a lot of hours, then absolutely that should be balanced by doing something different.”

Jayne Muller, an executive director and coach with Altris, which aims to help create highperformance teams within organisations, says in some jobs, long hours are unavoidable. The firm did some research in 2007 among women returning to work at a senior level after having children, and their key concern was for flexibility in their jobs. “But I’ve just seem some other research where that’s now only the third priority and financial security is at the top. There’s now definitely more of the attitude that ‘I need to just tough this out because I’m lucky to have this job’. The balance to be found is how to do that without being exploited and without compromising the value and ability you bring to the job and your own well-being.”

Muller thinks an important first step towards resolving work overload is getting people to be very clear about what their role is in their workplace. “The question is not what activity do you do, but what is the purpose of your role. And often we find when answering that that the activity they are mostly doing is not addressing their primary role. They are doing that, but a lot more besides.”

In that case, she says, the next question to ask is what needs to be done with other people and with work systems to allow managers to perform their proper role, “and what shouldn’t you be doing that we can delegate? Often it turns out there are no people to delegate to, so then it’s a question of how we delegate to a different timeframe, or how do we manage expectations.

“When we come back to asking ‘why are you here and what are you doing as part of your role’, 75-85% of the time there is a good portion of the role that the leader does not need to be doing, but they’ve hung onto it – they haven’t let go, there’s no one to pass it on to or they haven’t learnt how to delegate. “Unless people are clear about the purpose of their role, they just end up picking up more and more and feeling that they have to go to this meeting or that meeting and find it hard to be disciplined, because they don’t know what to say yes to and what to say no to.

“Once they are really clear on their purpose and the activities they need to do to deliver it, they are a lot clearer on being able to say, ‘No, I don’t need to be at that meeting because it’s not helping me in my role… so-and-so can go instead.’”

Managing stress
Gaynor Parkin is a Wellington-based clinical psychologist who teaches in Victoria University’s Psychology Department and also has a specialist consultancy, Umbrella Health, which runs workshops teaching resilience in the workplace. She is about to start a PhD research programme evaluating which techniques taught in the workshops help people cope better with stress. These techniques include thinking optimistically, managing emotions, looking after your health and scheduling recovery times in your day after applied periods of intense work. Importantly, the study has been devised to try to show which if any of the techniques improves productivity.

“We’re hoping to be able to say that if you help people learn these particular skills, then they will become more resilient and bounce back better.” She says certain themes are common to many workplaces these days, such as high demand, high output, shrinking resources and a constant need for adaptation and flexibility. “There is also that sense that people describe of being on a treadmill that they can’t get off. Or they are scared that if they do get off they might not be able to get back on.”

Managing stress is made more diffi cult when the boss also does long days without leaving the office. “You often see it in law companies and places with billable hours and if you’re seen leaving your desk before 6.30pm people raise their eyebrows as if to imply ‘slacking off already’, so it’s helpful for staff and managers to have conversations around assumptions and expectations. All the research on productivity shows it declines over time, so if someone’s working 15 hours a day, then half of what they do after an eight- to nine-hour day will not be productive.

“There is an assumption sometimes that panic mode is productive mode, whereas it’s not. We encourage people to actively question that, which often means having very difficult conversations. We advocate experimentation. Try doing it differently and see what happens. If you fi nd it doesn’t work, then there’s some evidence for you, but at least try it. “If you work 15-hour days, experiment with dropping them down to 12 or 13 and see what happens to your productivity, to your well-being. Just use some data to question those assumptions that you need to work those hours.”

Muller also supports the idea of discussions with bosses, and says it is often helpful to have a third-party facilitator, and to couch the issue in terms of how the company improves performance, or succession planning. “The important thing is to have the opportunity for managers to say to their bosses, ‘This isn’t working.’ Often thatdoesn’t happen unless a third party is involved, because otherwise they feel they will be perceived as not coping if they go to their manager and say, ‘We need to talk about how we do things around here.’

“We’ve found huge success in having an executive coaching development programme where three of us sit down and ask what is working and what is not. It provides another platform to put it all on the table.”

Dealing with the 'big picture'
Parkin says “the big picture” in workplaces is about more technology, a faster pace, more change and people tending to move around in their jobs more. On top of that, people are concerned about the security of their income. “Our approach is to say, ‘That’s how it is, and try to take the good stuff out of it and don’t rail against what you can’t change.’

Technology would be one part of that, so embrace what technology can help with – which is that we can work anywhere any time, talk to anybody anywhere, any time, but use your humanness to manage it. “As humans we are in charge of the technology and that is something that we stress about quite a lot. Turn your email alert off, or put your cellphone on silent, just be in charge of when and how you respond so you are not at the mercy of this machine sending you urgent stuff.” Stone echoes the need for discipline.

“I think a bit of self-discipline is one of the solutions,” he says. “Part of the problem is caused by the expectations of employers, and part of it is caused by our own need to be involved. We have created a rod for our own back. Part of the trick is to be able to say, ‘I’m going out’, or ‘I’m going to dinner’, or ‘I’m at home and I’m going to switch my cellphone off’. Things are seldom urgent.” Muller says workplaces where managers listen to their staff are starting to come up with their own solutions to the expectation of constant availability.

“A couple of weeks ago we were working with a senior team at a multinational manufacturer and the CEO said, ‘We need to start identifying how we behave as a senior leadership team’, and one of the actions they came up with was not being allowed to send emails after a certain time at night. We ran some focus groups and they were putting pressure on the middle managers coming through who felt they had to be constantly checking their emails and responding to their emails at nine or 10 o’clock at night. It had become a way ofbehaving. “Some of the senior managers were saying, ‘Well, I get the kids off to bed then I’ve got two hours of quiet time when I do some work and respond to emails.’ But of course, they were sending them off to people who are receiving them at 10.00pm.

“It may not be that the boss is expecting you to respond but you feel you should. But you have to be careful, because a different boss’s habit was to draft the emails up at night, then send them all at 7.00am, so some people would get 10 emails. So, it’s about managing the perception of when and how you communicate with people in your team or the people in your organisation.”

Statistics show that New Zealanders tend to work longer hours than other comparable countries and Parkin thinks too many of us are overworking. “It’s a culture and an assumption that hard work means productive outcomes, but that is an assumption that’s not borne out by studies. So, why do we keep doing it? Probably because we don’t question it enough.” She says the pessimistic view is that “this is really difficult and our generation is doing no better than the previous generation and there is not enough of a groundswell to really shift things”.

But some organisations have realised hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to greater productivity “and now do things differently. There are also individuals who have actively said, ‘I am not doing this any more, the cost is too high to my health, and to my family.’ “Some of them go into leadership positions and manage things quite differently from the way they were managed. So, the optimistic view is that if there are enough of those people over time, then maybe we’ll change the way we work.

Taking control

Three things are crucial if you want to stay on top of a big workload.

Galia BarHava-Monteith, photo David White

Galia BarHava-Monteith has a very simple piece of advice for couples with good incomes but little time: hire a cleaner. Twenty years after moving to New Zealand, BarHava-Monteith – whose roles include executive coach, ministerial appointee on the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women and director of professional women’s support organisation Professionelle – is still puzzled by the Kiwi reticence to hire domestic help, even in households that can afford it.

Originally from Israel, BarHava-Monteith had parents who worked full-time, as did the parents of her friends. “The idea that you outsourced some management of your household was completely normal. When I came here about 20 years ago, I was surprised that a lot of working mothers who had high-powered jobs and were working really hard wouldn’t dream of getting a cleaner.”

BarHava-Monteith says the Kiwi can-do attitude and New Zealand’s egalitarianism are parts of the New Zealand psyche that she loves, “except that it becomes really, really tough for individual women. I say to myself and my clients, and to women we work with in Professionelle, figure out what you really, really hate and outsource it. You can’t do everything.”

BarHava-Monteith loves cooking, but pays for help with it during the week and has a cleaner. “In fact, when I got my first job out of university, with the Boston Consulting Group, I didn’t have children but I worked very long hours and I said to my husband, ‘The first thing I will do with my salary is get a cleaner’, and I did.” And women shouldn’t feel that baking sent to school has to be home baking, she says. Her advice: buy it instead and don’t feel guilty.

Setting boundaries
Outsourcing jobs is one of the sides of a triangle that BarHava-Monteith considers essential for women managing a big workload. The others are confidence and setting boundaries, which she says go hand in hand. “The onus is on you to set boundaries. In the past you didn’t really have to – you left the office and you left it all behind. Now it has become more of a personal responsibility that is being transferred onto you. You still have to deliver, but you also have to manage how you deliver. And those of us who manage successfully do very well, but a lot of men and women get burnt out if they’re not very good at setting those boundaries.

“The women who are clear with boundaries say, ‘We will do X but we won’t do Y and we will say no when people ask us to do something outside our boundaries.’ She says women with clear boundaries – for example, not working after 9.00pm – feel more comfortable about the integration between life and work. “You have to be confident, and also know what the value is that you’re bringing to a workplace in order to set those boundaries, and then be able to say no. It’s when we start to apologise for everything we do that our lack of confidence is revealed.

“There’s a trade-off. If you want to do interesting, fulfilling work that speaks to your expertise and experience, chances are you’ll have to work hours that are not nine to five and that is a realistic expectation and one that I live with very happily. It’s how you manage longer hours that is important.”

Le short week

The French 35-hour week was supposed to create jobs and be good for society, but the reality has often been different.

by John Daniell

reflection of coffee house in the heart of Paris / Getty Images

The widely held perception that the French prefer to enjoy life rather than endure it seems to have been enshrined in law. The French Government introduced the 35-hour working week in 2000, aiming to stimulate job creation and allow employees more time off. But what was undoubtedly a voterfriendly move has been at best only partially successful in terms of job creation. Economists are still arguing about the long-term consequences, presenting figures that, depending on their viewpoint, range from an increase of half a million jobs to a net loss.

On paper, the equation looks simple: by passing a law that reduces working hours, the Government engineers a shortfall in overall company output, obliging businesses to catch up by taking on more workers. A reduction in taxes on employers was designed to ensure they could pick up the slack relatively painlessly, and the increase in free time was to be good for French society in other less-quantifiable ways. There was even a suggestion that housework would be more evenly shared between men and women.

But what happened in practice was that rather than taking on new staff, many employers pressured their existing employees to do the same work in less time. French men don’t do any more housework now than they did in the past, and although the DIY industry boomed, so did the need for hand surgery. French doctors filed the increased injuries under “new pathologies linked to the 35-hour week”. The nuts and bolts of the legislation are complicated: those who work in companies employing fewer than 20 people aren’t covered; employees classed as cadres (executives) are expected to stay at their desks for as long as it takes; and the self-employed are exempt for obvious reasons. A recent study suggests that, taken across the board, an average working week is more like 41 hours.

Successive right-wing governments have chipped away at the law, and even public-sector employers have found ways of clawing back what they perceive as lost work. Eliane Calvo, a 56-yearold nursing assistant, says at her public hospital in Montpellier no new staff were taken on when the 35-hour regime was introduced. Her weekly hours dropped from 39 to 37.5, and she was able to take another day and a half off every month. Initially she received the same pay for less work but annual pay rises slid under the rate of inflation; over time, the net result was less work for less pay.

Kiwis see an upside
Still, New Zealanders in France can see an upside. Richard Cotman, a Paris-based marketing director with Orion Health, is classified as a cadre but he now gets seven weeks’ holiday, rather than five. The regime is popular with staff and helps retain its best employees, says Cotman. He also points out that productivity is higher in France than it is in the UK and the US. “An hour off for lunch would be seen as lazy in New Zealand, but if you lunch as a group there’s an element of teambuilding, and you have the opportunity to get across issues that you don’t normally have in the office.”

Jane Abriet-Beausire married a Frenchman after studying at HEC, the elite French business school, and is now a human resources expert who runs a consulting firm in Paris. The 35-hour week is a good idea in theory, she says, but has not necessarily created more jobs. This is because French companies are just as keen as their overseas counterparts to keep the headcount down, which means most people simply work harder, and let their holidays pile up. “I don’t want to say it’s been a disaster, as it has served some sectors and populations well – some industrialised labour, for example, has benefited, and it makes childcare easier for families, as primary schools don’t have classes on Wednesdays.”


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