The 48 hour work week is a standard that was established during a very different time: more than eight decades ago when male breadwinners and female homemakers worked in parallel to keep households running.
In 2017 Australia, almost half of the paid workforce is female. The household work and caring responsibilities haven’t disappeared (although appliances may have made them somewhat easier) and children still need attention.
It’s time businesses caught on, and addressed what constitutes a “healthy work hour limit” in order to improve the mental health of their workers, and ultimately promote gender equality.
And now they have some data to help with the business case for making it happen. A number of ANU researchers have identified a “tipping point” on mental health when it comes to the number of hours we’re working every week, published in the Social Science and Medicine journal and on The Conversation today.
They’ve determine that tipping week to be 39 hours, based on six waves of data drawn from Australian adults surveyed in the Household Income Labour Dynamics of Australia survey. After an average of 39 hours, which is well short of the 48 hours set by the International Labour Organisation, mental health declines.
But break the data down by gender, and a significant gender gap emerges with the mental health threshold being 34 hours for women and 47 hours for men – a gap that kicks in early for women due to the significantly more time we’re putting into caring and domestic work at home.
It also doesn’t help that for every hour the average full-time working woman is putting into her job, she’s earning around 17% less than men, and she’s also likely to have less autonomy than men, due to the continued dominance of men across senior leadership positions.
The authors claim working hour regulations and expectations are disproportionately affecting women’s health. And from the data they present, you can start to see some explanations for why so many women drop out of high-demanding careers and professions shortly after having children. Your health and happiness, as well as the health and happiness of those around you, becomes more important.
More than 40% of us are working more than 40 hours a week at the moment – much longer than the 38 hour working week set by the National Employment Standards. Many of us are putting in closer to the 48-hour-week, that ILO threshold which simply makes no sense today.
Gender equality depends on seeing men and women better sharing the load at home. But archaic working week standards may very well be standing in the way. They’re standards that not only fail to take into account major gender demographic shifts in the makeup of the workforce, but also ignore technological advancements that have seen many of us ‘blending’ our work and family lives.
So will workplaces catch on to the importance of the 39 hour standard? When it comes to gender equality, the consensus in workplaces still seems to be about “fixing the women”. Give them more coaching, more mentoring, more courses, more education (all things that also take up more time).
From this research it seems a dramatic overhaul of what constitutes a ‘working week’ for both genders and all employees, whether they have children or not, is really what’s need.