Most people don’t have enough time in their lives. Here’s how government can help them get some of it back

Professor Lyndall Strazdins, director of the Research School of Population Health at ANU, and Sean Innis, director of the Public Policy and Societal Impact Hub at ANU, offer an approach to valuing citizens’ time in policymaking and service design.

Time is the most precious resource we have as people. Time cannot be stretched and time lost cannot be re-found. Clear limits exist – there are only 24 hours in a day.

Popular visions, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, were that new technologies would increase both material comfort and time for leisure. Labour-saving devices have certainly freed up potential time, and yet when asked, Australians still cite a lack of time as being the single biggest detractor of individual wellbeing.

Further back, the 19th century saw time become a major policy issue. Working hours were long and arduous – often 14 hours a day, six days a week. Campaigns started by the stonemasons resulted in long discussions about working hours – and the balance between work, rest and recreation (which included time for civic engagement and learning). It was not until 1948 that an eight-hour day was legislated nationally. Since then, time has receded as a focus of key policy interest.

Our choices around time, whether voluntary or constrained, define our health and wellbeing as well as our economic opportunity. ANU research is showing how a lack of free time can be as important as low income in increasing behaviours contributing to poor health. The same research also shows a negative impact on family relationships of conflicts between work and caring responsibilities.

At a societal level, our use of time can have major implications. The World Health Organisation now considers lack of exercise a global pandemic – contributing to avoidable disease burden. Some estimates suggest that increasing physical exercise by 15 minutes a day could reduce the future burden of disease by 13 per cent.

Constraints on our time vary across one’s life course, and are particularly affected by caring responsibilities. Studies consistently identify caring responsibilities as a key contributor to time stress, whether this be care for children, those with disabilities, or care for older parents. Time stress amplifies when balancing work and care, affecting four in ten people in the Australian labour force. But time stress also affects many others – students, for example, are increasingly reporting on the pressures of combining study and work.

Social norms, technology and policy have driven an enormous shift in household use of time over the past 50 years. US data from 1970 showed the combined work hours of couples with children averaging 45 hours a week. Increasing numbers of women in the workforce saw this rise to 82 hours a week in 2000. For Australia, ANU researchers estimate the figure to be around 72 hours a week.

Increasing hours of formal work by women have not, however, been matched by an equal shift in caring responsibility. Women still pick up the largest share of caring responsibilities. Work time also remains unevenly distributed, with men generally working full-time and women part-time. The gendered nature of time remains a key issue for society.

Through all of this change, what we think of as full-time work hours has barely shifted, and for some people has actually increased. For many watching the “machine age” emerge, this would come as a surprise. Bertrand Russell, for example, argued for a four-hour work day in 1935 to enable people to spend more time on the common good. And, while it is true that some companies in the UK, NZ and Europe are now trialling four-hour work days, they are exceptions. Lower full-time hours provide one possible path to more gender equity in work and care.

Time is also more than simply a matter of accounting for minutes and hours. Intensity, control and scheduling all play an important role in how we experience time. Theories of social acceleration identify growing competition for our attention and a fragmentation of our time. Technologies, which save time at one level, have also made our time more crowded – as we add tasks to the day. More than a third of people report feeling rushed, with women and carers more likely to be affected.

Changes in the nature of work also play a role. Fewer people truly and fully clock off at the end of the workday, with work time and leisure time bleeding together. Workplace flexibility in this context becomes both a blessing and, if not managed well by the individual and employer, a potential curse.

While many see work as a drain on time, the evidence from ANU shows that work-time can be good for our mental wellbeing. The emerging evidence suggests that around 38 hours a week suits many people, with some differences for women and men. Too much or too little work, however, detracts from wellbeing.

Time is, of course, very important to the economy. Increasing the value of our labour is a key pathway to overall economic prosperity, be this through increasing productivity or increasing hours worked. Measures of GDP identify the production that flows from this activity, but not its costs, including with regard to people’s time.

Policy and time

The relationship between time and policy is complex. For the most part, policymakers do not consider time impacts for individuals and families. The use of time is, by and large, seen as a matter of personal choice. We get to decide how long we work, how long we care and how long we rest.

Some exceptions exist, of course. Children and young adults are expected to attend education. Those receiving welfare are expected to seek work. And we all need to “make a living”. Support also exists to help people with caring responsibilities, providing both financial and temporal respite for some in our community.

While time does not play a major role in policy thinking and design, government decisions play a major role in defining the choices individuals and families can make. Economic policy settings, urban transport, design and infrastructure decisions, and service provision and design all affect the ability of citizens to choose how they spend time.

Despite this, and the significance time use has on our wellbeing, governments have been historically reluctant to see time as an issue for deep policy consideration. Even understanding how we use time has not necessarily been a priority. In Australia, budget constraints saw the Australian Bureau of Statistics place its time use survey on hold. A hold that has now been lifted, fortunately.

The indifference of governments to time is changing. Examples are emerging where governments are more actively considering the impact of their decisions on how people use their time. Urban design and service provision are two areas where some governments are looking to reduce time burdens imposed on citizens. The hope is to reduce unproductive time and increase leisure (or work) time. In some cases, government aspiration goes further in seeking to facilitate healthier uses of time – such as increasing the take-up of exercise.

Governments have also been part of a broader societal conversation around the concept of work-life balance. For the most part, though, government policies have focussed most strongly on purely economic objectives – increasing participation and productivity via workplace flexibility and (to an extent) support for child care. And emerging discussions around the future of work have raised a further concern over the availability and distribution of work opportunities as technology changes.

Less government attention has been paid to what these dynamics mean for a broad concept of citizen wellbeing. The concept of work-life balance also ignores the reality that many citizens do not or cannot work. Older Australians and young people, for example. It also ignores the fact that many non-work activities have significant societal value – such as community volunteering and providing care for family. And as important as the economic lens is, it should not be the only one.

So, what should governments be doing? Undertaking four parallel steps would strengthen the ability to consider time in the policy process.

Step one: create the evidence base

Policymaking is best served when there is a rich evidence base upon which to draw. Creating an evidence base that allows reasoned public discussion about issues and options, as well as recognising the contribution time makes to wellbeing, would facilitate better policy debates and, ultimately, decisions. Time is, of course, only one part of a complex array of factors influencing wellbeing. Just as a sole focus on economic factors is not sufficient, nor would having a sole focus on time. A broader approach is needed that integrates time.

Some countries have already taken this path, developing frameworks and measures to consider societal progress and wellbeing broadly. New Zealand, Canada, Germany and Bhutan all have developed frameworks for bringing a broader set of indicators into discussions about national progress, to supplement the traditional focus on economic production (via GDP). The OECD too has developed a broad “Better Life Index” that allows comparison across nations.

The focus on these frameworks varies. Some incorporate objectives, as well as measures (Scotland, UN sustainability goals). Others emphasise an individual and community level view (Bhutan) rather than a traditional national one. And some include a future-focus, measuring indicators of future wellbeing as well as wellbeing today (New Zealand, OECD).

Time use is explicitly identified as a top-level factor in most frameworks. New Zealand, Canadian and Bhutan all see time use as a critical component of wellbeing. In others, the concept is captured, but more narrowly. The OECD Better Life Index uses work-life balance, for example.

Australia was an early leader in considering the contribution of non-economic factors in assessing societal progress, but has since given up this lead. In 2002, the ABS released its Measures of Australia’s Progress, which was published periodically until 2013. While the focus on “national” progress lacks the richness of other frameworks, it reminds us of what can be achieved. More recently, the ACT has embarked on an ambitious project to develop a framework for measuring the quality of life and wellbeing of its citizens. This should be welcomed.

Better top-level evidence would provide a useful tool for supporting decision making. Even better would be for the top-level tool to be complemented by deeper analysis and research designed to help us better understand how time and its use contribute to wellbeing.

Step two: place a value on time

The development of an evidence base is an important underpinning for policy but it is not everything. To support it, governments would need to facilitate a conversation about the value that should be placed on the impact of decisions on people’s time.

Current approaches to measuring the value of time tend to follow a narrow construct. Estimates, for example, of the time wasted in commuting are generally measured against the loss to the economy had that time been available for paid work. This does provide useful information, but assumes that paid work is the best alternative use of time, which might not be the case. The evidence of the importance of time for health is one reason for this; the opportunity to provide additional time for parenting (unpaid time) is another.

Value is, of course, going to be subjective. When the NAB behavioural insights team asked about the value people would place on an extra hour of time, on average people said $68 but those most affected by time stress valued the extra hour at $131. Interestingly, both these estimates are above average hourly wage rates, suggesting that for some people, at least, having more time is being valued above having more money – one reason why developing policies about time is needed.

These complexities make valuing time accurately difficult, but they should not be used as an excuse for governments to ignore the value of our time. It does mean that a full ‘economic’ cost-benefit analysis may be hard to develop, and that alternative approaches might also be needed. Policy might, for example, be best informed by assessing the impact of differing policies against some notional benchmarks rather than searching for the perfect cost-benefit analysis. Benchmarks could also play a role in helping policymakers come to grips with how time use is distributed across the community, and how best to wrestle with what some would call time inequality – where some in our community are time poor and others are relatively time rich.

Step three: establish some priorities and watchpoints

Establishing some clear areas of priority consideration would help focus policymaking. This is particularly important in a federation like Australia, where many policy issues require at least some level of coordination across levels of government.

While the evidence base can be improved, clear evidence currently exists that some people and groups experience significant time poverty. And some governments are responding. The increased focus of decisionmakers on urban design and service provision looks a sound one. Lessening time “wasted” from a citizen perspective through better design of services or going about their day-to-day lives provides one practical way governments can give back time. This approach has become particularly popular in the global Smart City movement.

Helping people with enduringly high care and work responsibilities should remain an ongoing focus for policy. It is the tension between these two societally important activities that leads to most time poverty. Providing working carers, be they individuals or families, with options to better manage their limited time – while difficult – has the potential to add to overall wellbeing.

More generally, policy should take an interest in the general balance people need to make in their lives between work, care, leisure and rest. This is not an area where policymakers should jump too quickly to conclusions. What works for one person or family may not work for another. But the significance of this balance to overall wellbeing demands it be a bigger part of the policy equation.

Step four: define some boundaries around the role of government

In considering the value of time, some principles will be needed on the role of the citizen versus the role of government. At face value, our current starting point in Australia that people should (within some boundaries) be free to choose how they spend their time is a strong one. Whether people are truly free to choose is, of course, debatable. Few Australians would welcome government playing a significant role in determining how they spent their time, but it is likely that most would welcome actions that freed up or saved time.

This suggests a cautious approach may be needed from government. Reducing time burdens imposed by government processes and the design of infrastructure, as noted above, are likely to be uncontroversial. But given the importance of time to wellbeing, there may be a case for governments to further consider the role they could or should play in the expanding the choices citizens have over the use of their time. And to consider whether there is a greater role for government, through its decisions and actions, in promoting a healthy use of time. Time is, after all, the most precious resource each of us has.

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