NOTHING annoys me more than hearing employers complain about the work ethic of Australians.

Because the reality is that Australians work some of the longest hours in the developed world, including an estimated average of more than four hours of unpaid overtime every week.

That’s almost six weeks of unpaid overtime each year. This unpaid time at work eats into social and family activities, like taking children to sporting practice, volunteering for a community service or just taking a well-earned rest.

More and more, work is creeping into people’s personal lives, especially as the use of smart phones and mobile technology increases. So today, on Go Home On Time Day, unions are encouraging people to clock off on time instead of staying back to put in a couple of extra hours for free.

A few hours each week may not sound like much, but the total number of unpaid hours worked by Australians adds up to more than two billion every year. That’s $72 billion worth of unpaid work or more than one million full-time jobs.

Yet the latest labour force statistics show 867,100 Australian workers don’t have enough work and want to work more hours.

So, on the one hand we have millions of workers regularly being asked to stay back for free and on the other we have almost 900,000 people who are unable to earn what they need because they can’t get enough hours of work. Imagine the dent we could make to our unemployment rate if that culture of unpaid overtime did not exist?

What is feeding this epidemic of overwork? When the ACTU asked that question in last year’s Working Australia Census, 38 per cent of people said there was a lack of staff and excess workload that forced them into extra hours; 28 per cent said it was the culture to work extra hours. And the Working Australia Census also found that work interferes in people’s lives in other ways. More than a third of respondents said they would be contacted outside work hours at least once a week.

Go Home On Time Day reminds us all of the impact on our work-life balance caused by excessive hours. But what is more annoying than working for free is not being told about extra hours until the last minute. Knowing when your boss is going to need you is important because you can schedule other family and social activities, including caring responsibilities.

But the increase in unpaid overtime and unpredictable working hours has coincided with the growth of casual, contract and labour hire jobs in Australia.

Workers with those insecure types of jobs have much less certainty about their working hours than permanent employees.

Earlier this year, a national inquiry into insecure work, chaired by former deputy prime minister Brian Howe, heard dozens of stories from casual, labour hire and contract employees about how they could not plan their lives because they had no certainty about their working hours. Unpredictable rosters are the result of a lazy management culture that regards workers as being on tap to fill gaps in the workforce at short notice.

“They want all casuals to be available 24/7 without exceptions, or risk not being called,” Joel, a casual wards assistant in a public hospital, told the inquiry. “I have no control over my work. Some weeks I won’t work at all and sometimes I won’t stop working for two weeks. You never know if you are going to have enough to pay bills and you need to prepare for the fact that you may not work for the next month.”

Go Home On Time Day comes only once a year, but the time has come to reduce insecure work and the unpaid and unpredictable hours many Australians are doing every day of the year.

This article first appeared in the Herald Sun on 21 November 2012.