Annual surveys done by The Australia Institute on the work-life balance of Australian workers, as part of their ‘Go Home on Time’ initiative, shed light on some disturbing work hour trends. Below are some summary points from the reports published in 2014, 2015 and 2016 by The Australia Institute’s findings.


The November 2014 survey ‘Walking the tightrope’, showing stats for 2013:

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  • Australia ranked 10th highest amongst OECD countries with an average full-time working week of 42.8 hours
  • On average, full-time workers worked 6 unpaid overtime hours each week
  • Part-timers reported working 3 unpaid overtime hours each week
  • Unpaid overtime contributions added up to 1.13 million hours a week
  • This is equivalent to $2.1 billion per week
  • And $9,471 in unpaid overtime for the average worker each year
  • Unpaid hours were about 14.7% of all hours worked
  • The unemployment rate of 6.2% in Australia would become ZERO if these donated hours were allocated and paid to unemployed Australians
  • Work-life balance was reported to have worsened for 4.9 million workers (42%) over the previous 5 years


The November 2015 survey ‘Workin’ 9 to 5.30’, showing stats for 2014:

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  • Australia ranked 12th highest amongst OECD countries with an average full-time working week of 42.6 hours
  • On average, full-time workers worked 5.94 unpaid overtime hours in the week leading up to the survey
  • Part-timers reported working 3.99 unpaid overtime hours in the week leading up to the survey
  • Annualised, unpaid overtime contributions added up to $128 billion
  • 31% of workers reported that unpaid overtime is expected

  • 20% of workers reported that working at home outside of normal work hours is expected, compared to 14% in 2013
  • 38% of workers reported that they felt their work had a negative impact on their stress levels
  • When asked which activity they miss the most due to long working hours, ‘spending time with family’ was the most common at 37%


The November 2016 survey ‘Excessive Hours and Unpaid Overtime: An Update’, showing stats for 2015:

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  • Full-time workers work 41.3 hours per week on average
  • On average, full-time workers worked 5.1 unpaid overtime hours in the week leading up to the survey
  • Part-timers reported working 3.74 unpaid overtime hours in the week leading up to the survey
  • Annualised, unpaid overtime contributions added up to $116 billion
  • Workers earning over $150k per year reported 5.7 hours of unpaid overtime per week


The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) considers a full-time employee to be one who works 35 hours a week or more, and The Fair Work Act 2009 defines a maximum working week to be 38 hours. Considering these figures, an average full-time working week of between 41 and 43 hours over the last 3 years gives us an idea of just how much free work Australians are ‘donating’ to their employers. And although there seems to be a positive, downward trend in the hours of unpaid overtime on average over the years, the figures still represent a disconnect between reality and the Australian value of work-life balance. After all, Australians rank work-life balance higher than health, education, or jobs and income.

So, if you’re one of the generous hard working Australians giving away free work to your employer, how can you start to avoid doing this in the future and achieve a better work-life balance? This can be a tricky situation as many Australians find that working fewer hours (or reasonable hours) is made difficult by the culture of overtime. And with working overtime (paid) not necessarily being illegal, it can provide some challenges to say no.

Nevertheless, below are some of the strategies you can implement into your work life to reduce the number of hours you ‘donate’ to the workforce. Working long hours is one of the factors that contribute to feeling underappreciated and unhappy at work, so take some steps to eliminate one of the biggest stressors that take away from your time spent doing things you enjoy. For those running their own organisation or in management positions, apply the below points to your business to create a productive, safer and healthier environment for your staff.


Become more efficient.

Of course, having to do overtime doesn’t necessarily mean you have so much work to do that you can’t complete during work hours. However, becoming more efficient during work hours and minimising manual processes can help to speed up your work and increase productivity. Organisations can invest in software and project management tools to automatise some of the time-wasting tasks. For employees, put forward some ideas and suggest great tools you find, that could help you do your work more efficiently.

Also, consider how much time you’re spending to make things “perfect”. Understandably, most Australians are hard workers that want to put in their best and produce their best work possible. However, are you spending too much time perfecting little things like writing one email? If you find yourself using the thesaurus to complete an email, you should just stop. While it depends on the work that you do and the position you hold, not everything requires your 100% attention to detail. Learn when and where to apply your best efforts and when and where not to give your all.


Delete your work email off your personal phone.

Or set it so that you don’t get notifications after work hours. Even if you leave work on time, the time you spend checking your work email and communicating with colleagues on work-related matters all adds up. Make it a point to be outside of the work mindset when you’re outside of work.

For those in the high-income managerial positions that think that with such position comes certain responsibilities like taking work phone calls at 10PM on a Sunday night, change the culture one step at a time. Company cultures are created, not set. And unreasonable expectations of your staff or yourself can lead to job dissatisfaction which can contribute negatively to your general well-being. As the 2016 survey displayed, the higher the income, the more unpaid overtime. Let’s make the years of hard work you did to get to your current position worthwhile, and stop giving away your time for free. Instead of switching off completely overnight, try gradually reducing the number of phone calls or emails you send/receive.

And for those running and directing the organisations, stop calling your staff after hours, period. Your business is your baby and every little thing that happens to and in it can set off an internal alarm or feel like an instant motivator. However, it is not the same for your employees. They have their own lives and their own babies, whether they are hobbies, partners, relaxing time, or real babies.


Have good manners for those around you.

Similar to the point above, if you find yourself frequently checking your phone for work emails from home, make a rule to put your phone away from sight when you’re communicating with others in person. This is especially for parents who are overworked. Family time is family time, and your kids and partner deserve to be treated with proper communication manners and respect.

Showing good behaviour comes from you, and you should make a point of putting away distractions when you’re catching up with your family. If you keep interrupting your family members’ stories by doing work-related activities, you run the risk of making them feel unimportant and unappreciated.

For those that live alone or with housemates, it’s the same thing. Put away work distractions when you’re hanging out with your housemates or when you’re treating yourself to a funny TV show, a nice meal, a bath, or anything else you like to do in your spare time.


Grow a thick skin.

Nobody wants to be that person that leaves on time when everyone else stays back another hour or two on a regular basis. Well, sometimes you just have to become that person if you want to lead a happy and healthy life that is not consumed by work. At first, you may get some disapproving looks from your colleagues, but after a while it may just become the norm – “Oh, Jane has to go home at 5.30PM.”

And if you’re lucky, they’ll learn your ways, too. Although it might first start from a “Well, if Jane’s going home then I am, too!” perspective, it can gradually become the norm for your office that nobody is expected to work unpaid overtime. And why should you be surveilling each other anyway, like you’re some kind of unpaid overtime enforcers?

The more challenging thing is leaving on time when your boss is still working. You find yourself just clicking and typing away with no real work being done and just watching the time go by, wondering when it will be reasonable to leave. Well, the reasonable time is written in your contract. Bosses, if you decide to work late then be considerate of your direct reports and tell them to leave. A simple “It’s 5.30 already – I’ll see you guys tomorrow. Have a good evening.” can make your staff feel a lot more comfortable to leave.


Make after-work plans.

Make some plans with friends or family after work and stick to them. Trying to be accountable to your loved ones will motivate you to leave work on time. Or make plans to go home and relax, go to the gym, or take a class. Personal development is a much more worthwhile cause for your commitment and time than working without pay.

Parents working a lot of overtime would already know how much working hours can impact the quality time spent with the kids. Promise your kids that you’ll take them out to a restaurant or have a nice home cooked meal followed by a movie, and make it a weekly occurrence. Then start to gradually increase the number of days you make a conscious commitment to hang out with your family.

Same goes for workers with partners or other close friends. If you find yourself frequently cancelling plans, take the step and actually make a reservation at a restaurant or pre-order some movie tickets.


Log your overtime hours.

Even if your employer doesn’t pay you for overtime hours, track the unpaid overtime you work. This includes coming into work early, lunchtime spent working and eating at your desk, leaving late, and time spent taking any phone calls or reading and responding to emails from outside of work.

Create a running sheet of your overtime hours and keep an accurate log of it. Apply your normal hourly wage or the penalty rates and see how much you’re ‘donating’ to your employers.

Unpaid overtime per week*

Hourly rate

Penalty rate at x1.5 Value of weekly ‘donation’
3 $20 $30 $90
4 $30 $45 $180
5 $50 $75 $370
6 $75 $112.5 $675

*Roughly based on average unpaid overtime hours per week based on income.

If you could actually quantify just how much money you are giving away to your employer, you’ll be more likely to make some decisions around whether or not the unpaid hours are worth it. If you were forced to actually donate the amount of money that would have been earned by your overtime had you been duly paid, would you choose to donate it to your employer?

Just to put it into perspective, “in 2013-14, individual tax-deductible donations to charities totalled $2.6 billion – barely 2 percent as much as the value of unpaid overtime work that was appropriated by employers in 2015-2016” (‘Excessive Hours and Unpaid Overtime: An Update’, 2016).


Employers, it’s really up to you.

While there are several strategies workers can implement to avoid doing unpaid overtime such as the above points, the pressure to work more than you’re contracted to is undeniable in the Australian workforce. The changes that the employees make on an individual level can add up to a change in culture over time, but the cultural shift really requires the employers to be on board. The figures are all there; When you remember that overtime (or not taking proper breaks) can negatively impact workers’ productivity levels, you would realise that free labour isn’t a good thing after all.

Plus, creating or maintaining a culture of expected (unpaid) overtime contributes to burnout, lower employee job satisfaction and morale, and is likely to result in a higher staff turnover rate. By overworking your staff or praising those that do, you’re actually bidding against your own company.

Stop praising unpaid overtime by avoiding phrases like “team player” or “dedicated”. Encourage your employees to leave work on time and if overtime is needed for a special event or project, ask for a reasonable amount of time and provide proper compensation for their time. And avoid creating an atmosphere where employees are too scared to say no to overtime requests for fear of how they’ll be perceived or treated by you or their colleagues.