Australia is becoming a nation of workaholics. And not because we want to be

We're already working harder and longer. Now we can cash in our leave, too.

We're already working harder and longer. Now we can cash in our leave, too. Photo: Stocksy/SIMONE BECCHETTI

Australia, the land of opportunity, the lucky country, the land of workaholics. I'm one of the lucky ones. I got out of the corporate land ten years ago when I realised I wasn't cut out for it. It made me super stressed and unhappy. But lately, I've been questioning whether it was me, or the system. Have we got it all wrong? Do we need an entire overhaul? To adopt the work day used by many European countries, like my ancestral home, Cyprus, where they have a lunchtime siesta?

Apparently not according to the Fair Work Commission. Their latest reforms introduced this month allow employees to cash in their annual leave, highlighting that apparently not only are we a land of workaholics, but we also believe we don't work hard enough and should work harder. Who cares if we're also depressed, uptight, stressed out, sick people? We can cash in up to two weeks a year of our annual leave under this new scheme and work instead.  

One has to question what kind of work culture we have spawned where our health, lives and wellbeing always seem to come in second. 

The changes were 'praised' by business leaders, with the nation's biggest business group – the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – saying they showed the Fair Work Commission was prepared to listen to the needs of business. But isn't that what we're been doing anyway in this country for decades? ACCI chief James Pearson said the proceedings "highlighted the lack of flexibility in the modern award system".

But I didn't think there was much 'flexibility' when I worked in the corporate world. As a computer programmer straight out of university (very naïve to it all), when we were on a tight deadline (which was most of the time), there was an expectation (unless you didn't want to get a good ranking and potential pay rise at your next performance review) that you had to work longer hours to meet the deadline. My manager reassured me though, that we would get 'time-in-lieu'.  

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After some months of long hours, I emailed my manger about when I could take my time-in-lieu and was told in not so many words that part of getting a 'high salary' is that you are expected to work longer hours. I was outraged, and I expressed this to my co-workers (five men) who shrugged their shoulders and kept working. That's when the 'time-in-lieu myth' dawned on me. So I put my head down and continued to work till I got so unhappy I thought I'd better have a baby, and have a rest.

Working a 9-5 (oh, the irony) job, made me so stressed I was unable to wind-down, to relax, to look after myself. It also rubbed off on me, caused me to bury myself in my work so much that later in life, when I packed it all in to pursue my dream of being a writer, I noticed I was a workaholic writer compared to my other arty friends. This became clearly evident when I received an Australia Council grant to travel to Cyprus to translate my poetry book into Greek. I had visited family there before but this was the first time I had immersed myself in the Cypriot work life. We had a very tight deadline and I was anxious we were not going to meet it. But my translator refused to put work before taking care of herself, resting, going out with friends – basically living.

"All you are focused on is work," she argued with me. "Your mind never rests. I don't work that way. We don't work that way here. How do you work if you don't rest? How do you function? What about life, what about living?"

Cypriots, for as long as I remember, have a relaxed attitude. I never met a Cypriot who worked long hours or weekends to meet a deadline. Work was equal priority to rest and play, which is clearly reflected in the work laws where the private sector close for a two hour lunch/siesta in the winter months, and 3 hours in the summer. It was not uncommon to find people sleeping on beanbags during siesta in the office I worked.

One has to question what kind of work culture we have spawned where our health, lives and wellbeing always seem to come in second. Has the Fair Work Commission actually considered the ramifications of this change?

The Australian Council of Trade Unions fears it could lead to an erosion of vital workplace conditions. ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said, "The fact that employees tend not to take the annual leave they have accrued indicates that employers are not creating work environments in which employees feel secure taking the leave that they have earned."

I remember in a performance review meeting back in my corporate programmer days, I was subtly told I wouldn't be getting a pay rise because I wasn't 'putting in' as many hours as my male counterparts.

Will this change be another measure for putting in the hard yards? Won't it pressure employees to work instead of taking time off they are entitled to?

And with all the improvements introduced into workplaces for flexible parenting, couldn't this change mean parents who choose to take their leave will be discriminated against due to being less 'available'? Family duties already fall disproportionately on mothers because of societal expectations. Won't this change further increase the gender pay gap and entrench the culture of exclusion of women in leadership positions?

Seems pretty obvious to me.

Koraly Dimitriadis is a freelance opinion writer, poet, film and theatre maker and the author of Love and F**k Poems. www.koralydimitriadis.com