Published: 21/09/2022
Category: On The Job
Published: 21/09/2022
Category: On The Job

Ben Eltham loves his job as an academic working with university students.

Passion for your job can only take you so far though, so when his phone beeps late at night or he hears the ping of another email dropping into his inbox on the weekend, he starts to wonder if it’s all worth it.

“I sometimes get text messages from students that just are so desperate because they get worried about their assignments or whatever, that they’ll 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 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Monash University branch President. The NTEU is engaged in a long running campaign to improve job security, wages, and conditions on Australian campuses.

One of those conditions is the right to disconnect, a guarantee that academics and other staff can switch off their laptops, mute their phones and have a clear demarcation line between them and the relentless and ever-present demands of the workplace.

Speaking with On the Job, Eltham said the expectation that academics are available at all times to deal with a relentless workload has destroyed any sense of work/life balance.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult, particularly for working parents. And of course, if you don’t reply to the student inquiries, then that can give you a bad score on student evaluations [and] that will affect whether you get work next semester,” Eltham says.

“There’s a lot of incentives that the universities have put in place to make people pay attention to these digital pings, you know, that are coming into their inbox.”

“We’re talking about some of the smartest and best educated people in the country, but who are paid very low wages. They are simply not paid for the time they spend answering these digital inquiries,” Eltham said.

Members of the Finance Sector Union (FSU) encounter similar issues when it comes to taking work home with them, and are also campaigning for workers being able to unplug.

FSU Victorian and Tasmanian secretary Nicole McPherson agrees, saying the right to disconnect won’t stand in the way of management calling staff during emergencies, but would ensure that staff had a clear line between work and their own time.

“I think as the use of technology in our workers grew, there’s been an increasing expectation for us to be available all the time,” she told Nine Newspapers.

Change is not only possible – it is necessary

France was the first country to create a right to disconnect law in 2001.

A ruling in the Labour Chamber of the French Supreme Court (similar to our Federal Court) held that “the employee is under no obligation either to accept working at home or to bring her/his files and working tools.”

In 2004 the Supreme Court affirmed this decision and ruled that “the fact that [the employee] was not reachable on his cell phone outside working hours cannot be considered as misconduct.”

21 years on, the NTEU and the FSU are demanding the same for all Australian workers.

The demand for the right to disconnect has been further fuelled by the chronic reliance on casualised staff who are paid piece rates, as well as the overwhelming amount of administrative and preparatory work staff are expected to do.

The bottom line is that these workers are being expected to work extra hours for no recompense to do their jobs, according to Eltham.

“There’s an extraordinarily large amounts of email work to do. If you’re teaching a big first year unit, you might have a 1000 students. You’re in charge of the subject, with the help of some tutors, but you are the co-ordinator, the point person,” he says.

“We are aware of [NTEU] members who are getting 300-400 emails a week. They’ve got to respond to each of those emails in an extensive, pedagogically sound manner, as well as teach the classes, prepare for the next week’s class, let alone doing research, sitting on committees, or getting their kids to school on time.”

“And academics are given very little support. At times students are disclosing genuine mental health issues as well, and so staff have to make a choice. Do they do what’s best for the students? To do that, they might have to work a 60 or 70 hour week during the semester,” Eltham says.

Unpaid work for the love of the job doesn’t pay the bills. It’s also a terrible way to treat the very people who are charged with the responsibility of educating the next generation of Australians.

You’re never alone when you’re a union member

The right to disconnect would help ensure academics like Ben Eltham don’t disconnect themselves from the job to which they’ve dedicated so much love and effort.

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is hard and isn’t something you have to do alone. As a first step, it’s worth chatting to your Health and Safety Representative (HSR) at work about your concerns.

Having an HSR at work is one of the reasons why unionised workplaces are also better for your mental health.

Workers are people first. With your union, you can progress your career without doing unpaid hours or sacrificing life outside work.

We stand up for workers’ rights together

Why the right to disconnect matters to workers

Why the right to disconnect matters to workers