Where have the holidays gone?
Australians are finding it harder, not easier, to enjoy time off. Photo: Pat Campbell
Australia used to see itself as the land of the sickie, the smoko and the long weekend.
In the 1980s we used to laugh both at the seemingly work-obsessed culture of the Japanese and our own ''bludger'' culture, best typified by the bloke leaning on his shovel.
Not any more.
Australians now work among the longest hours in the developed world and, as Christmas approaches, it's important to reflect on the fact that for millions of Australians the relaxing summer holiday, like a beach without mobile phones, is a thing of the past.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics about 2.3 million employees in Australia do not have access to annual leave; which means that for many people Christmas is either a time for serving other people their lunch or going without work for a week or two. Neither option is terribly festive or relaxing.
In addition to the casual employees without leave there is the growing army of contractors and the self-employed. Many of these people enjoy the flexibility and autonomy of running their own show and the ability to take as much or as little time off work as they wish. But unfortunately many ''independent'' contractors are little more than employees who supply their own tools and insurance. Like the casuals, Christmas can be a time of reduced income and increased stress.
Finally, there is the army of permanent employees who aren't accessing the leave they are entitled to, either because they are too busy at work, their boss won't give them the time off that suits them or they are saving it up. According to a survey by the Australia Institute, more than half the Australians employed on a permanent basis, or about 3.8 million people, did not take all their leave in the past year.
Holidays are important. They are good for the health of individuals, families and workplaces. A good long holiday gives people time to rest, reflect, and even repair their bodies or their relationships. Few people return from a holiday determined to work longer, worry more about the little things and spend less time with their friends and families. Holidays give us perspective.
Employers benefit from employees with perspective. The new Australian workplace culture of working long and irregular hours, being permanently connected to the workplace through technology and taking intensive short breaks rather than an indolent month off does nothing to boost workplace productivity.
Tired workers who haven't been away from work for more than a few days in the past year are not at their most creative or co-operative. They may be churning through their inboxes and attending lots of meetings but they are less likely to be identifying new opportunities and far less likely to notice that they are putting most of their effort into the urgent and not making time for the important.
One of the main causes of this dramatic cultural change has been the abuse of the notion of productivity. For more than 20 years we have been told by our political and business leaders to increase our productivity in order to compete with other countries. But while our leaders have been quick to tell us to become more productive they have been slow to explain what they mean.
For economists, productivity means the amount of output that can be produced for a unit of input. An apple picker who can pick 20 kilograms of apples in an hour would be defined as twice as productive as someone who can pick only 10 kilograms in the same time.
For many politicians and business leaders, however, productivity has come to mean something completely different. Rather than focus on the output they typically focus on the inputs. For them, the slower picker could increase their ''productivity'' by sticking around and working for an extra hour.
By the employers' logic, if Australians work long hours of unpaid overtime and don't take their holidays Australia can increase its productivity. Except the opposite is usually the case. As we work longer and longer hours and fail to take our holidays our output per hour actually declines.
Genuine productivity increases come from finding newer and better ways of doing things. By the economists' definition at least, increasing output by getting people to work longer can't increase productivity. You can't increase productivity by focusing on inputs - it is how much output we get from those inputs that defines productivity.
Of course the focus on getting workers to provide unpaid overtime makes sense from the employers' point of view as their ultimate objective is profit, not productivity. If they can get workers to volunteer their time for free then any output that comes from those hours will be very profitable. And if they can use national interest arguments to help persuade workers to volunteer that time then you can't blame them for trying.
The problem with this focus on extracting unpaid effort is that it distracts us from the real causes of productivity growth, such as the capital investment decisions of companies and the ability of management to organise their enterprises efficiently.
While it's possible that some apple pickers are twice as skilled or hard working as others, it's also possible that workers on motorised cherry pickers are a lot more productive than those with stepladders.
Just as it is profitable to get workers to volunteer their time, it's a pretty good trick on the part of management to shift the focus of the debate about productivity away from the things that management control, such as investment decisions and organisational structure, to those who can't influence those decisions.
Contrary to popular belief, Australian workers are among the most productive in the world. This fact, combined with our long work hours, explains why gross domestic product per capita (the economists' measure of productivity) in Australia is among the highest in the world. And not only is the level of our productivity high, it continues to grow.
On average Australians are now some of the wealthiest people in the world. Obviously poverty and disadvantage exists, and is concentrated in some communities, but on average we are far richer, and far more productive, than we were in the 1980s.
But despite this wealth and productivity many Australians now find it harder, not easier, to enjoy time off with friends and families. And for millions of Australians, the holiday leave that was fought for during the 20th century has already been lost in the early part of the 21st.
The pursuit of productivity growth is an important goal. If we can produce more output per hour we could, by definition, produce the same amount with fewer hours of work each year. The fact that we are now working so much longer than a few decades ago suggests that something has gone very wrong for many workers, and very right for many employers.
Dr Richard Denniss is executive director of the Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank.