Lockdowns and border closures may (hopefully) be a thing of the past, but the legacy of COVID weighs heavily on how we work. One of the lasting impacts of COVID is that many Australians are working longer hours and feeling more exhausted than before the pandemic.

We surveyed over 2,000 Australian workers in a joint Deloitte and Swinburne University of Technology study, and found that one in three people have been working longer hours since the pandemic. Many also work outside of their “standard” hours.

Remarkably, more than 90% of workers now say their physical and mental well-being is just as important as their pay – and that’s during a cost-of-living crisis. Simply put, Australia is at risk of tipping into a welfare recession.

The good news is that this welfare recession can be avoided. But we need to act now and truly embrace one of the most game-changing workplace innovations of the COVID era: flexible working.

Flexwork is a key factor of well-being thanks to a better work-life balance. Having the choice of where and when we work is not only a benefit: it has become a must.

For more than two in five workers — both those working onsite and those working remotely — flexibility is more important than a pay rise because it promotes benefits like better mental health. Almost two in three said they would forgo a pay rise to ensure flexible working arrangements.

Australian workers are at risk of burnout and demand better wellness outcomes.

There are four implications for employers arising from flexible working. The first is that the inability to offer truly flexible work options could make it more difficult to attract and retain talent in an already tight labor market. Salary, learning opportunities and career progression are always important. But flexible work options are non-negotiable.

Second, there is potential for a flexibility divide to emerge in businesses across Australia. On one side are workers who can do their jobs remotely and are empowered to work from home. On the other side are on-site workers – whose jobs are location dependent – ​​but who also want more flexibility, like the ability to set their own schedules. They can increasingly turn to other jobs to gain the flexibility that others enjoy.

The third implication for employers is that the full benefits of flexible working may not be realized unless it is formalized in workplace policies, employee contracts, or company agreements. The lack of formalization of the policy also presents risks in terms of compliance with wages and health and safety.

Not only are remote workers more likely to work more than a full-time week than their on-site counterparts, but nearly a quarter of them told us they work after-hours every day. . Worryingly, 28% of flexible workers said they were not compensated for these non-standard hours through overtime, compensatory time off or a wage agreement.

Although workload was the main reason for working early in the morning or late at night, it is encouraging to see that some workers are Choose work during these times. This indicates that some workers are performing life activities during the day – going to the gym, attending to responsibilities – and realizing the work-life balance benefits of flexible working.

Finally, we believe that much of the work done outside working hours is not tracked or recorded by employers. Not only is there a risk to employee well-being – especially when coupled with longer hours overall – but it also suggests that many workers may be underpaid.

Australian labor relations laws were not created with flexible working in mind and do not distinguish why an employee may work non-standard hours. Employers are responsible for having systems that pay their employees properly. Deloitte’s experience with payroll consolidation suggests that underpayments are typically caused by employees not being paid for all hours worked.

Our research suggests that workers covered by an Enterprise Agreement (EA), tailored to the workplace, are more likely to have a choice of where and when they work, to be willing to give up a percentage of their salary to get this flexibility and to work for an employer with a formal remote work policy.

Business negotiation can be a laborious process and is in decline. But we need to get it right, and these survey results suggest that employers may need to reconsider the bargaining option to provide more flexibility to their employees while managing compliance risks.

Australian workers risk burnout and demand better welfareresults.

Flexible working is the remedy that can be codified in employment contracts. Well-being cannot.

Natalie James is a partner at Deloitte Australia, leader of its workplace integrity practice, adjunct professor at Swinburne University of Technology and former Fair Work Ombudsman. Sean Gallagher is director of the Center for the New Workforce, Swinburne University of Technology.

This opinion piece originally appeared in The Age.

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