The hidden cost of working from home

12 November, 2020

Work from home rates skyrocketed across the country this year, driven by the Australian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of Australians working from home most days increased from 12% in March (prior to COVID-19 restrictions) to 31% in September, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

While working from home aided the pandemic health response, workers suffered a number of hidden costs – according to the Working from Home Report released by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

The report, which surveyed 10,000 workers, found home workers were working more hours, not being paid for all hours worked, incurring significant work-related expenses, suffering mental health problems and experiencing a worse work life balance.

Of the home workers surveyed:

  • 40% are working longer hours, many 5+ extra hours per week;
  • 90% are not being paid overtime or penalty rates;
  • $530 in additional expenses was incurred by workers, on average;
  • 9% said they had an increased workload;
  • Almost half (49%) had experienced some form of mental illness; and
  • Working from home created a significant imposition on work-life balance

A year of challenge and disruption

COVID-19 has made an indelible impact globally in 2020 and has led to a year of challenge and change in schools.

IEU-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke said many members would see their experiences reflected in the ACTU survey findings.

“For parts of Terms 1 and 2 this year, many teachers and school support staff were working from home, likely for the first time, while grappling with a rapid roll out of online learning,” Mr Burke said.

“Getting this program in place meant staff undertook a remarkable workload in a very short space of time.

“There is no doubt there were costs, both monetary and professional, associated with this change.”

Mr Burke said while most schools in our sector had returned to on-site classroom instruction after the initial wave of COVID-19 infections subsided, the legacy of online learning would endure.

“The increased digitisation and datafication of learning were occurring prior to the pandemic and have likely been accelerated,” Mr Burke said.

Mr Burke said resolving the workload burden associated with these issues is a fundamental and ongoing challenge for the teaching profession.

“In many ways, what occurred as a result of the COVID-19 adjustments in schools is a microcosm of the challenges that have faced the profession for some time.

“Our union has been fighting for action on workload for many years, but employers have struggled to consider any real solutions.

“Workload will remain a critical part of our union’s professional advocacy and collective bargaining negotiations in the months and years ahead,” Mr Burke said.

Flexibility at what cost?

While the ACTU report found the benefits of working from home included reduced commuting time, greater autonomy and enhanced worker productivity, it questioned how much workers benefitted – particularly in terms of productivity.

“Most productivity benefits in the last few decades have gone into higher profits,” the report said.

The report also highlighted that increased rates of working from home placed workers’ “right to be disconnected” at risk.

“The potential for ‘work without end’ appears to be more likely to occur with those working from home,” the report said.

81% of workers surveyed favoured the option to work remotely if supported to do so, but the ACTU raised questions over whether employers had the capacity to adjust to provide the level of support needed.

The ACTU proposes a new Working from Home Charter of Rights to ensure workers are protected as rates of working from home rise.

The charter includes:

  1. Rights at work: all time paid, work related expenses, performance monitoring, shared productivity gains.
  2. A safe place: risk assessment, mental health, ergonomics, violence bullying, hierarchy of controls.
  3. Work-life balance: carer’s responsibilities, excessive hours, privacy, the right to disconnect.
  4. Better Together: join and be represented by the union, connected to co-workers, supported by the employer.
  5. Maintenance of existing job quality across workplaces: protections are designed to suit the workplace and working from home is not used to undermine protections elsewhere.

Click here to read further coverage of the ACTU Working from Home Report.

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