Are so many people really unhappy with their working hours?

Close on the heels of the latest ABS publication on Working Time Arrangements, the subject of a long blog discussion on Andrew Nortons site, the ABS has followed up with Preferred Working Hours of Wage and Salary Earners, Queensland.

This Survey found that, of people surveyed in Queensland, only about half were happy with the hours they worked. About 14 per cent preferred to work more hours and a whopping one third preferred to work fewer hours. In that last category, however, only about one in five was prepared to work fewer hours for less pay the majority wanted to work fewer hours for the same pay.

In the course of perusing the publication, I was reminded that when the ABS carries out its household surveys it asks only one person (any responsible adult) the survey questions about all of the relevant people in the household. The ABS explains that this means that

It is possible that some answers supplied by the responding person may be different to what would have been answered by the in-scope person themselvesalthough it has been estimated that the error resulting from this occurrence is small

Now, I can understand that when it comes to some survey variables, eg gender, age, relationship with other members of the household, the answers provided by someone else can be expected to be pretty reliable. But the further you get away from this into areas that the responsible adult may or may not know, the more error is likely to creep in. This is why, for example, most people would prefer to use data on earnings collected from employers rather than data on earnings collected through the ABS household survey.

Now, when it comes to preferred hours of work, we are really getting into peoples preferences and attitudes. I was thinking about how this might play out in a stereotypical household where the husband is married to the job and this has been a longstanding bone of contention with his wife.

For starters, who would be the person most likely to be at home when the ABS calls – Workaholic husband (WH) or long-suffering wife (LSW)?

Next, if it were LSW, how would she be likely to answer the question about whether WH preferred the long hours he worked? Well, hadnt he always told her that he only worked those hours because it was expected of him, and of course he would much rather spend more time at home with the family? You can see where Im going with this, cant you?

But, of course, the amount of respondent error attached to data collected like this would be small, wouldnt it? Just wondering

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7 Responses to Are so many people really unhappy with their working hours?

  1. Backroom Girl says:

    I meant to mention that in future there will be at least one set of data on working arrangements that should be less susceptible to these kinds of biases.  The ABS is this year carrying out an occasional survey called the Survey of Employment Arrangements, Retirement and Superannuation (SEARS).  Unlike the usual household survey whereby one responsible adult in a household is interviewed by phone, in SEARS every household member aged 15 or older will be interviewed in person.  It will be interesting to see how comparable the data from this survey are with similar data from the regular household surveys.

  2. Martin says:

    It could go the other way however. Those at home to take the survey call are more likely to be underemployed (or unemployed) than those not at home. Presumably they would be more likely to prefer to work more
    hours.

  3. Anthony says:

    The "any responsible adult" method has been problematic in the past, in my opinion. Half

  4. James Rice says:

    I agree that asking one household member questions
    about the preferred working hours of other household members seems like you are
    asking for error (although why would most people prefer to use earnings data
    collected from employers rather than the ABS household survey?).

    Even when people are surveyed about their own
    preferred working hours, however, the answers can be a little suspect. There
    are at least two reasons why people may understate their own preferred working
    hours. One is that being pressed for time is a badge of social status: it shows
    you're in demand. Another is that it is just not socially respectable to say
    that you prefer to abandon your family for long working hours, even if you do.
    (These issues are discussed briefly by my co-authors and I in an upcoming book,
    currently only available in draft form.) Anecdotally, my partner and I have
    actually been surveyed in the ABS on this very issue. Both of us were asked –
    in each other's presence – whether we would prefer to work fewer, the same, or more
    hours than we actually did. From personal experience, I can tell you the
    pressure to say you would like to work fewer hours is pretty high! The pressure
    to answer in this way must be particularly high in households in which the
    husband is married to the job and this has been a longstanding bone of
    contention between him and his wife.

    But if you are interested in the degree of fit between
    preferred and actual working hours, what are the alternatives?

    When people are surveyed about their own preferred working
    hours (rather than those of other household members), the results seem to line
    up with the newly released ABS results, more or less. In a recent article,
    Brigid van Wanrooy and Shaun Wilson use the Australian Survey Of Social
    Attitudes 2003 to explore these issues ("Convincing The Toilers? Dilemmas
    Of Long Working Hours In Australia", Work, Employment And Society, 2006,
    vol 20, no 2, pp 349-368). They find that 29 per cent of workers either
    "agree" or "strongly agree" with the statement that
    "my hours each week are too long", while 50 per cent of workers
    prefer fewer hours each week.

    (Today's
    Sydney Morning Herald includes an article that reports on some of van Wanrooy's
    more recent work on these issues.)

  5. Backroom Girl says:

    My point was about the possible effect of people answering on others' behalf, Martin.  I have no doubt that the people who answer the survey have an accurate handle on their own preferences and may or may not want more hours.  There is another issue about whether people are likely to want to reveal their own preferences to an interviewer – but that is not the one I was raising here.

  6. James Rice says:

    I agree that asking one household member questions about the preferred working hours of other household members seems like you are asking for error (although why would most people prefer to use earnings data collected from employers rather than the ABS household survey?).Even when people are surveyed about their own preferred working hours, however, the answers can be a little suspect. There are at least two reasons why people may understate their own preferred working hours. One is that appearing pressed for time is a badge of social status: it shows you're in demand. Another is that it is just not socially respectable to say that you prefer to abandon your family for long working hours, even if you do. (These issues are discussed briefly by my co-authors and I in an upcoming book, currently only available in draft form.) Anecdotally, my partner and I have actually been surveyed in the ABS on this very issue. Both of us were asked – in each other's presence – whether we would prefer to work fewer, the same, or more hours than we actually did. From personal experience, I can tell you the pressure to say you would like to work fewer hours is pretty high! The pressure to answer in this way must be particularly high in households in which the husband is married to the job and this has been a longstanding bone of contention between him and his wife.But if you are interested in the degree of fit between preferred and actual working hours, what are the alternatives?When people are surveyed about their own preferred working hours (rather than those of other household members), the results seem to line up with the newly released ABS results, more or less. In a recent article, Brigid van Wanrooy and Shaun Wilson use the Australian Survey Of Social Attitudes 2003 to explore these issues ("Convincing The Toilers? Dilemmas Of Long Working Hours In Australia", Work, Employment And Society, 2006, vol 20, no 2, pp 349-368). They find that 29 per cent of workers either "agree" or "strongly agree" with the statement that "my hours each week are too long", while 50 per cent of workers prefer fewer hours each week.(Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald includes an article that reports on some of van Wanrooy's more recent work on these issues.)

  7. backroom girl says:

    James – my reference to employer earnings data was to the ABS Employee Earnings and Hours Survey, not just any old employer data.  It is clearly superior to the household survey based data for questions of earnings and hours and their relationship to other labour market variables, it's just that you have to use the household survey to find out whether someone is a married workaholic (for example).

    I was just a bit bemused, I guess, by the fact that such a large proportion of people said they preferred to work fewer hours .  However, clearly people's preference for fewer hours doesn't in most cases trump their preference to maintain their current income (and possibly to increase it in the future, if the reason they work long hours is to 'get ahead').  So, in the end I would agree with you that such findings should be taken with a fair bit of salt.

    I should also say that I guess I can understand why the ABS uses the methodology it does – I just thought it worth reminding people that it doesn't always do to get too excited about a statistics like these.  And I am looking forward to the release of the SEARS data (though that is still a year of two down the track)

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