Policymakers love to talk about getting Australians to work, but there are limits to the amount and type of work people can do without risking a negative effect on wellbeing, writes Robin Brown.
Few Australians would say that financial compensation for work has not benefited their own well-being, but many would also say that they derive their well-being in terms of enjoyment or accomplishment from the work itself. In some cases, the total number of hours worked by a person may exceed the point where, overall, the welfare benefits of work are outweighed by those of rest or doing other things.
But what about the collective benefits of work? What welfare does work, or Australians doing more total work, bring to the community or the nation?
Paid work, within reason, tends to be positive for well-being – paid employment for more than 12 hours per week is associated with better mental health, self-esteem, physical health and happiness at the individual level, as well as the obvious benefits of economic security.
But is there a point of diminishing returns? A significant amount of paid work hours may not be as useful as policy makers like to think. Although working more than 12 hours is good for individual well-being, working more than 34 hours a week can increase the incidence of unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking, and those who work more than 48 hours a week are faced with higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Also consider unpaid or voluntary work. Unpaid work done for oneself, family and friends is generally good for well-being, but it is rarely accounted for effectively. Someone can work what seems like a net positive 38 hours a week at their job, but 12 extra hours of unpaid work could put them in the welfare danger zone.
It is also important to note that women’s contribution to the economy is much greater in the unpaid sector, and therefore their contribution to collective well-being is likely to be underestimated as well.
Not all jobs are the same either.
Some products that Australians strive to sell or produce harm the well-being of almost all of their consumers – such as tobacco – or at least many consumers, such as gambling products, alcohol or even food and drinks that can be unhealthy.
The net effect on national welfare for gaming industry hours, for example, should be outweighed by the harms of the product itself, and this may well end up being negative for national welfare on this calculation.
There are valid questions about a number of products, such as certain weapons, labour-intensive products, over-packaged products, fossil fuels, disposable plastic products and all others that harm the environment. in their production, consumption or disposal. Policy makers should ask themselves the question: is an Australian working in such industries really a win for the collective welfare of the community?
It is also true that some works increase inequalities. Australians have many jobs that, while contributing to their individual well-being, end up making the rich even richer. Among the worst of these are the job of managing money for Australia’s wealthiest people, especially minimizing their taxation, and the rent-seeking lobbyists who help corporations realize super profits. In terms of average national well-being, wouldn’t it be better if these hours were used to reduce inequalities?
If Australia is to maintain harm-causing industries, it must be done on the basis of a transparent calculation demonstrating the net benefit to the well-being of employees, their families and the community as a whole.
EEmployment is an important piece of the well-being puzzle, but a job alone is not necessarily a ticket to individual or collective well-being.
Rather than championing low unemployment and high labor market attachment for themselves, Australian leaders must address the existence of structures in the country that negatively affect the well -be – particularly harmful industries – and consider the extent of unpaid work done in the community alongside the risks. of overwork.