Polluted time: Blurring the boundaries between work and life

Flexible work Work-life balance Working hours Overtime Well-being Mobile phones Australia

In recent decades technology has revolutionised the way companies do business and workers do their jobs. From the very top of organisations to the most menial and low-paid roles, the great majority of employees now use information and communication technology to some extent for work. Some spend their entire working lives in front of a screen of some sort. In theory, technology is supposed to make workers more efficient and productive. In practice it may in fact be doing precisely the opposite. Rather than workers using these new tools to do their jobs more effectively, they are now increasingly beholden to those very tools.

In the modern, technology-driven work environment, it is now possible to dictate what employees do when they are outside the workplace as well as in it. While one's 'free' time should normally be free of work demands, the ability to contact someone at any hour of the day by email or telephone often means that it is often interrupted by work. These new demands on non-work time via technology represent a form of soft control over workers and a new frontier in unpaid overtime.

This paper documents the growing phenomenon of 'polluted time' - periods or moments in which work pressures or commitments prevent someone from enjoying or otherwise making the most of their non-work time. Time can be polluted by needing to carry out work-related tasks outside of normal working hours, being on call to come into work if necessary, or simply thinking about work to the extent that affects the way free time is used or experienced. Polluted time is one of the many consequences of a labour market which has become increasingly 'flexible' over the past few decades. All too often the benefits of such flexibility have flowed to employers, while employees see less flexibility than they would like.

To explore the phenomenon of polluted time, in July 2011 The Australia Institute carried out an online survey of 1,384 Australians, of which 845 reported being in paid work.

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