There is a strong link between unpredictable working hours and occupational injuries, musculoskeletal disorders and poor health, according to both Health Canada and Australian National University (ANU) researchers.
In a submission to the Australian Productivity Commission, the ANU's National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health said there was a "significant gap" in the Commission's requirement to "recommend policies to maximise the wellbeing of the community as a whole" as part of its Inquiry into the Workplace Relations Framework.
"Poor health in workers disrupts both productivity and prosperity, and serves as a major impost on the nation's health budget; hence a lack of consideration of health will have serious unintended consequences that are critical to this inquiry," said the ANU's submission.
An important working condition that impacts health is working time, and the submission noted that long, unpredictable, non-standard hours are now acknowledged as a major impediment to time for healthy eating, physical activity and sufficient sleep - which in turn are the responsible behavioural risks lying behind major preventable chronic diseases.
"Long work hours are associated with occupational injuries and accidents, psychological ill-health, musculoskeletal disorders and unhealthy behaviours, including poorer eating habits. These long hour workers are therefore at a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental health problems," the ANU said.
"High work time loading and pressure impacts leisure time and exercise. Similarly, time poverty, work stress and long work hours has been found to be connected to unhealthy lifestyles; time poor individuals are less likely to engage in active travel such as walking or cycling to work."
The submission also noted increasing work intensity (having to do more in less time) increases the risk of anxiety and depression in women workers, while time poverty is also linked to poor eating habits, with work time ‘spill over' into personal time associated with lower fruit and vegetable intake.
Health Canada also observed that the severity of these injuries also depended more on who the individuals reported to within the organization than the organization they work for.
"The behaviour of the employee's immediate manager (i.e. extent to which they engage in supportive and non-supportive behaviours), on the other hand, is a key predictor... who you work for is also a key predictor of how much flexibility an employee perceives they have with respect to hours of work and work schedules."
Work-life policies and programs are necessary but not sufficient, in that they will not be implemented or used if an employee's manager is non-supportive of work-life issues.
"While employers often point with pride to the many programs available in their organization to help employees meet family obligations, they do not diminish the fact that most people simply have more work to do than can be accomplished by one person in a standard work week."
For the more than 10 per cent of Australian employees, and more than 20 per cent of Canadians, there is high likelihood of long hours with no minimum conditions. This group is particularly at risk of the inferior health behaviours experienced by both long hour workers and those in insecure employment.
"Changes to workplace relations frameworks and associated legislation should take into account their effects on workers' ability to maintain their own health through adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep.
"(Re)negotiating awards and enterprise agreements should include healthy behaviour minimum standards, alongside OHS standards. To advance the development of such standards, we suggest public health experts advise relevant authorities, including Fair Work Australia and the Canadian Labour Congress."