Ben Eltham loves his job as an academic working with university students.
However, passion for your job can only take you so far. When his phone beeps late at night or he hears another email ping in his inbox at the weekend, he wonders if it’s all worth it.
“Sometimes I get texts from students who are just so desperate, because they’re worried about their assignments or whatever, that they start texting. And you don’t want to say please don’t contact me on my phone, you want to support them,” he says.
Eltham is President of Monash University of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). NTEU is involved in a long-standing campaign to improve job security, wages and conditions at Australian universities.
One of those conditions is the right to disconnect, a guarantee that academics and other employees can turn off their laptops, mute their phones, and have a clear demarcation between them and the relentless and ever-present demands of the workplace.
Speak with At work, Eltham said the expectation that academics would be available at all times to cope with a relentless workload shattered any sense of work-life balance.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult, especially for working parents. And of course, if you don’t respond to student inquiries, you may get a poor score in student ratings [and] that will affect whether you get a job next semester,” says Eltham.
“There’s a lot of incentives that universities have put in place to get people to pay attention to these digital pings that are coming into their inboxes.”
“We are talking about some of the brightest and best educated people in the country, but they are paid very low wages. They just aren’t getting paid for the time they spend responding to these digital queries,” Eltham said.
Members of the Finance Sector Union (FSU) face similar issues when it comes to taking work home and are also campaigning for workers to be able to unplug.
Victorian and Tasmanian FSU secretary Nicole McPherson agrees, saying the right to separate doesn’t stand in the way of management calling staff in emergencies but would ensure staff had a clear line between work and free time.
“I think as our people’s use of technology increased, the expectation that we would be available at all times increased,” she told Nine Newspapers.
Change is not only possible – it is necessary
France was the first country to create a law on the right to separate in 2001.
A ruling by the Labor Chamber of the French Supreme Court (similar to our federal court) found that “the worker is not required to accept work from home or to bring his files and work utensils with him”.
In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld that decision, ruling that “the fact that [the employee] Unavailable on his cell phone outside of working hours cannot be considered misconduct.”
21 years later, NTEU and FSU are demanding the same for all Australian workers.
The demand for the right to separate has been further fueled by the chronic reliance on casual workers who are paid on a piece-rate basis and the overwhelming amount of administrative and preparatory work required of staff.
The bottom line, according to Eltham, is that these workers are expected to work overtime to get their jobs done without anything in return.
“There is an extraordinary amount of email work to be done. If you are teaching a large first year unit, you may have 1000 students. You are in charge of the subject with the help of some tutors, but you are the coordinator, the contact person,” he says.
“We are aware [NTEU] Members who receive 300-400 emails per week. They need to respond to each of those emails in a thorough and educational manner, teach the class, prepare for the next week’s class, not to mention do research, sit on committees, or get their kids to school on time.”
“Academics receive very little support. Sometimes the students also reveal genuine mental health issues, and so the staff must make a decision. Are you doing what is best for the students? To do that, they might have to work a 60- or 70-hour week during the semester,” says Eltham.
Unpaid work for the love of the job doesn’t pay the bills. It’s also a terrible way of treating the very people charged with the responsibility of raising the next generation of Australians.
As a union member you are never alone
The right to separate would help ensure that academics like Ben Eltham do not part with the work they have put so much love and effort into.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is difficult and not something you have to do on your own. As a first step, it is worth speaking to your workplace health and safety representative (HSR) about your concerns.
Having an HSR in the workplace is one of the reasons unionized workplaces are better for your mental health too.
Workers are people first. With your union, you can advance your career without putting in unpaid hours or sacrificing life outside of work.