Social policy | Australia

6 June 2022

Policymakers love talking about getting Australians to work, but there are limits to how much, and what kind of work, people can do without risking a negative effect on wellbeing, Robin Brown writes.

Few Australians would say that financial compensation from working did not benefit their own wellbeing, but many would also say that they derive wellbeing in terms of the enjoyment or fulfillment of the work itself. In some cases, a person’s total hours worked might go past the point where, on balance, the wellbeing benefits of working are being outweighed by those of resting or doing other things.

But what about the collective benefits of work? How much wellbeing does working, or Australians doing more total work, provide to the community or nation?

Paid work, within reason, tends to be wellbeing positive – paid employment of more than 12 hours per week is associated with better mental health, self-esteem, physical health, and happiness at the individual level, along with the obvious benefits of economic security.

But is there a point of diminishing returns? A significant amount of paid working hours may not be as useful as policymakers like to think. While working more than 12 hours is good for individual wellbeing, working more than 34 hours a week may increase incidences of unhealthy behaviours like smoking and drinking, and those working more than 48 hours per week face higher rates of anxiety and depression.

Also, consider unpaid or voluntary work. Unpaid work done for oneself, or family and friends, is usually good for wellbeing, but it is rarely counted effectively. Someone may be working what seems a net-positive 38 hours a week at their job, but a further 12 hours of unpaid work might bring them into the wellbeing danger zone.

More on this: Podcast: Wellbeing and reimagining the Australian economy

It’s also important to note that women’s contribution to the economy is much larger in the unpaid sector, and so their contribution to collective wellbeing is likely underestimated too.

Not all work is the same, either.

There are some products Australians work to sell or produce which are detrimental to the wellbeing of nearly all their consumers – like tobacco – or at least to many consumers, like gambling products, alcohol, or even foods and beverages that can be unhealthy.

The net national wellbeing effect for gambling industry hours for instance, would have to be offset against the harms of the product itself, and this may well end up a negative for national wellbeing on that calculation.

There are valid questions about a number of products, like some weapons, products exploiting labour, excessively packaged products, fossil fuels, disposable plastic products and any others that are environment damaging in their production, consumption, or disposal. Policymakers should ask the question: is an Australian working in such industries actually a win for the community’s collective wellbeing?

It is also the case that some work increases inequality. Australians work many jobs that, while helping their individual wellbeing, ultimately make the wealthy even richer. Amongst the worst of these is work managing money for Australia’s richest people, especially minimising their taxation, and rent-seeking lobbyists who help companies make super-profits. In terms of average national wellbeing, would it not be better for those hours to go to reducing inequality?

If Australia is going to maintain harm causing industries it must be on the basis of a transparent calculation demonstrating the net wellbeing benefit to employees, their families, and the community at large .

Employment is an important piece of the wellbeing puzzle, but a job alone is not necessarily a ticket to individual or collective wellbeing.

Rather than championing low unemployment and high workforce participation for their own sake, Australia’s leaders need to address the existence of structures in the country that negatively affect wellbeing – especially harmful industries – and consider the extent of unpaid work being done in the community alongside the risks of overworking.

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