Workers are doing six hours' worth of unpaid overtime each week this year, despite hopes that working from home during COVID lockdowns would improve work-life balance, a new report says.
An Australia Institute survey found workers were doing the yearly equivalent of more than eight weeks' worth of overtime without pay, at a cost of $125 billion in income.
Workers have also reported they are being monitored by employers through surveillance technologies such as webcams while working from home.
The Go Home on Time Day report, released on Wednesday, coincides with the return of many Canberra-based workers to their regular office buildings after weeks working from home during the ACT lockdown.
Public Service Minister Ben Morton has also made clear the federal government's "strong expectation" of Commonwealth public servants returning to the office.
Australia Institute Centre for Future Work economist Dan Nahum said the survey found unpaid overtime had increased again in 2021, reaching 6.13 hours per week, after rising to 5.25 hours in 2020.
He said unpaid overtime had increased as the number of employees working from home had grown during the COVID crisis.
"We think that's a function of the pressure that people are under to try and balance the work expectations of their employers with the other responsibilities that they have in their life," Mr Nahum said.
The Australia Institute report said the experience of the pandemic appeared to indicate the shift towards working from home may not represent a step toward a better, more humane work-life balance for workers.
"In many cases it has allowed a further incursion of work into people's personal time and indeed privacy, and a further undercutting of Australia's set of minimum standards around employment (including standard hours, overtime, and penalty rates)," the report said.
Two-thirds of full-time workers performed at least some of their work at home during the COVID-19 crisis. About 22 per cent were already doing some work from home before the crisis while 42 per cent changed their working patterns as a result of the pandemic.
A quarter of employees working from home said their employers had expected them to be more available during the COVID-19 crisis. Among workers who had worked from home, two-thirds also said they would continue to do at least some work from home post-pandemic.
About 62 per cent of people working at home were doing some of that work outside of normal working hours.
Mr Nahum said work-from-home arrangements had been accompanied by innovative surveillance methods such as webcams and keystroke monitors.
About 39 per cent of employees said their employers remotely monitored their activity, and a further 17 per cent were unsure whether they were being electronically monitored or not.
"When one in three workers say they are being monitored via webcam and 30 per cent say their every keystroke is being recorded, it's clear our industrial laws are not keeping pace with tech," Mr Nahum said.
Some forms of surveillance, such as monitoring email content and web usage, pre-dated COVID but employers were adapting methods in the face of increased numbers of staff working from home.
"It's becoming more more acute and more worrying," Mr Nahum said.
"That's really worrying that the legislative and regulatory response has been so piecemeal and so incomplete compared with the speed with which that electronic monitoring and surveillance has really picked up and become commonplace in Australian workplaces and in particular, home workplaces."
The amount of income lost through unpaid overtime took money out of the economy during the recovery from COVID, he said.
"That's really money that we don't want to be leaving circulation from the economy," he said.
"The business sector has an interest in making sure that these wages get paid as well, not just the individual workers."
Unpaid overtime also carried social and health risks for employees, putting pressure on family relationships and preventing non work-related activities, Mr Nahum said.
"You also wonder whether we can afford the social cost of working such a large number of hours. Australian workers work extraordinary hours, if you look at the international comparisons," Mr Nahum said.
He called for policymakers to strengthen workers' power to demand reasonable, stable work hours, and fair payment for every hour they work.
"This is all the more important with so many Australians working from their own homes," Mr Nahum said.
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