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 be doing 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. Most respondents (60 per cent) reported doing some kind of work task outside of their normal working hours in the past week.

  • One in four (23 per cent) said that working at home outside of normal hours was expected in their workplace, while 15 per cent said that it is necessary to do such work often in order to meet the expectations of their job. By contrast, only 8 per cent of respondents indicated that working outside normal hours was discouraged in their workplace.
  • Polluted time is an affliction that is more likely to be experienced by people on middle and higher incomes – that is, people in skilled jobs.
  • One in four respondents (24 per cent) indicated that their employer had provided them with some kind of technology or device that allowed them to work outside the workplace, such as a mobile phone or laptop. These people were twice as likely to say that they often needed to work outside of normal working hours than those whose work did not provide them with such technology (25 per cent compared with 12 per cent).
  • Seven out of eight respondents with a device provided by their employer (83 per cent) said that they had worked outside of normal work hours in the past week, compared to around half of those without a device (52 per cent).
  • Email was the most commonly reported intrusion on free time – more than phone calls, meetings, travel and other types of work. Our survey findings suggest that in a workforce of 11.4 million people, some 6.8 million workers experience some degree of time pollution in any given week, while 1.75 million workers regularly have their free time polluted by work demands. Although there are many factors contributing to time pollution, survey results clearly show that the use of information and communication technology for work purposes plays a major role.

Without information on the nature of polluted time in the past, it is difficult to determine the extent to which the contamination of free time by work has changed since employers began to embrace information and communication technology, or whether particular kinds of time pollution have been replacing others. What is certain is that some workers who were happy with their work/life balance a decade ago are now less satisfied with the expectations of their job, because certain technologies that contribute to polluted time simply did not exist until relatively recently. Solutions to the growing problem of polluted time must come from both sides of the employer/employee relationship.

For employers, simply recognising polluted time as a negative phenomenon (rather than regarding it as free labour) is a significant step. Employers may think that they are delivering flexibility by providing workers with mobile phones and laptops, but rather than alleviating stress they are often contributing to it. For individual workers, insisting on proper boundaries between work time and free time is equally critical. Where someone’s free time is polluted to the extent that they cannot do what they otherwise would have done, or cannot properly appreciate it when they do, then they should recognise that the situation has gone too far. Moreover, workers should beware of bosses bearing gifts. Although hi-tech gadgets are attractive by design, in a work context they often come with conditions attached and may best be avoided.

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