Enterprise careers: What's a reasonable time?

IT's long working hours served as the example of the long working hours Australian workers put in at the 'Reasonable Working Hours' test case on which the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) ruled last week.

The AIRC ruling which states that an employee can legally refuse overtime deemed unreasonable was won by the ACTU after the union body argued overwork is costing Australia $3 billion in fatigue-related workplace accidents. But analysts and employers argue it doesn't really apply to IT because the tech sector is not typical of the broader workforce.

While employers and unions agree the standard working week has increased in the past decade, the ACTU claims the Australian workforce has the most unpaid overtime in the developed world.

But employer body, the Australian Industry (Ai) Group said IT staff prefer longer hours and do tend to work hard to maintain a competitive edge and they do this by choice.

The Ai report pointed out: "With a drop in the previous level of headhunting and a more stagnant job market, IT employees are becoming more competitive; IT professionals are now being forced to see themselves as a cost to the company rather than a necessity."

IT staff who spoke to Computerworld supported the claim, saying they are thankful to have a job but it does put them in a lifestyle dilemma and that trying to maintain a work-family balance is increasingly tough.

Technology has not made life easier, just faster, driving expectations of faster response times and always being in contact.

Gartner analyst Steve Bittinger said it is the desire to earn more money, above the average, that compels IT staff to work longer and harder.

"Mobile connectivity allows IT professionals the flexibility to work longer hours and for many it's more than a job; people work in IT because they like it," he said.

The IRC case is the first time working hours have been reviewed since the eight-hour day was introduced in 1947 and the right to refuse overtime is based on an employee's ability to balance work and family life.

The decision will apply to both federal and state awards and followed evidence the ACTU presented that more than 30 per cent of employees worked more than 48 hours a week. From 1981 to 2000 there had been a 76 per cent increase in staff working more than 45 hours a week, the ACTU said.

While the test case is expected to give employees more control over their working hours, ACTU president Sharan Burrow said there is still more to do to create more family-friendly workplaces.

Burrow said a national paid maternity leave scheme should be at the centrepiece of these reforms including parental leave for fathers.

Earlier this month the ACTU announced a plan for 14 weeks paid maternity leave capped at average earnings of $900 a week and funded jointly by the Federal Government and an employer levy.

The Ai Group supports 12 weeks paid maternity leave funded by the Government at the level of $431 per week and the proposals are being considered as part of a national inquiry by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward who will report to the Government later this year.

How much time

So what really are the hours IT staff clock up? IT staff agree they do work long hours and they certainly support more family-friendly policies in the workplace, but this is overridden by the reality of getting a job done. Olivier Recruitment director Bob Olivier said there is an expectation from clients that IT staff "stay until the job is done".

"In the work arena, IT staff are either working too little or too much; in the past the shortage had them working longer hours, but the climate has softened and this has meant changes in other areas.

"For instance, in the past people may work five and a half days a week and clock time from 9 to 5; nobody clocks time like that these days; they might be available seven days a week, but the hours are more flexible - they aren't restricted to time at the desk."

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