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Hours-long daily commutes are contributing to the worst wellbeing for young Australians in two decades, the peak business lobby says.

But the Business Council of Australia (BCA) — which has led calls for workers to return to the office — says more investment in infrastructure, not working from home, is the solution.

In a report released on Monday outlining a “comprehensive national plan to reverse the nation’s productivity slump”, the BCA warned that Australia’s “luck is running out” after the growth and prosperity of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Outlining a number of areas “we’re falling behind”, the Seize the Moment report noted the “wellbeing of Australians aged 25-34 compared with other age groups is now lower than at any other time in the past 20 years”.

“Australia ranks poorly in a range of wellbeing measures in the OECD’s Better Life Index,” the report said.

“We sit at 33rd in the world for work-life balance, 20th for community, and 13th for life satisfaction. Many Australians experience long daily commutes to work, which robs them of time with their family. More than one in four Victorians travels over an hour in each direction to work … nearly one in 10 spends more than two hours travelling in each direction.”

Long commute times and better work-life balance are the major factors cited by employees wishing to continue working from home after Covid, as many organisations begin enforcing return-to-office mandates — sparking pushback from staff and unions.

Earlier this week news.com.au revealed comments made by Bendigo Bank boss Marnie Baker about the company’s return-to-office mandate during an internal livestream, where she conceded “it’s not about productivity” and outlined the personal and professional benefits of face-to-face interaction.

One social media user shared the BCA report, noting that despite conceding long commutes were hurting wellbeing, none of the lobby group’s members or the peak body itself were advocating for work from home.

“I travel four hours a day in total just to get to and from work,” another Reddit user said.

“This includes an hour of walking, taking trains, and waiting for trains. I do this simply to be able to afford to pay rent AND keep my job as median rent in the area is too much and leaves me without enough to pay for utilities. I’ve been doing this for five years. I’m miserable.”

Outgoing BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott has been one of the leading voices calling for a return to CBD offices.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2021, Ms Westacott insisted “revitalising our CBDs is not about shoehorning workers behind their office desks”. “Far from it. It’s about people’s jobs and livelihoods. It’s about ensuring the commercial heart of our cities are vibrant, safe and prosperous,” she said.

“The survival of thousands of family and small businesses depend on foot traffic returning to the CBDs, from baristas and pharmacies to dry cleaners, cafes and speciality stores. Then there’s the critical ecosystems of suppliers of all sizes, including those from the outskirts of the city, that provide goods and services to city businesses.”

The future of larger business that “run hotels, shopping centres, supermarkets, own office spaces and provide essential services” was also at stake, she warned.

On Thursday, high-profile Melbourne restaurateur Shane Delia called in to radio station 3AW to comment on the leaked Bendigo Bank video, after host Neil Mitchell praised Ms Baker’s comments as “brave”.

“One thing that people need to understand is we’re talking about work-life balance … but people like balance and having all the better things in life,” Delia said.

“And once you break down the ecosystem of reduced foot traffic in the city on a seven-day basis, it starts to really [eat] into the fabric of what Melbourne’s all about. People want that world-class hospitality and world-class retail offering, but if it’s now only on a three-day work week, I don’t know how long that’s viable for. It’s not just a balancing act of what works personally, but what do we actually really value and what are we willing to contribute to keeping that alive?”

The Maha owner and TV personality said he was seeing “significantly” reduced lunch trade on typical work-from-home days.

“Especially sort of Monday, Friday, you’re down 30-40 per cent in lunch trade,” he said. “That’s a huge cost when you consider the increased cost of doing business too.”

In its report, the BCA said there needed to be greater national co-ordination on infrastructure and that projects should be prioritised based on whether they “contribute to improved nationwide liveability and wellbeing, for example, by lowering commute times”.

The business body has also called for immigration — currently running at record levels — to be ramped up further to address the “demographic time bomb” of an ageing population.

“A well-calibrated migration program targeted at countries with young populations such as India and Indonesia, supported by planned housing and infrastructure, is needed,” the report said.

“Migration delivers more than just economic benefits. It enriches our diversity and helps us become a more outward-looking nation.”

In a statement, BCA president Tim Reed said the report “spells out how to move the dial on Australia’s lacklustre productivity rates”.

“Productivity gains underpin higher wages and improved living standards by unleashing investment which drives innovation and the expansion of industries,” he said.

“The concept of productivity can sometimes feel very academic, but in practise it is simple — we need to work in new and smarter ways, so that each unit of input, each hour worked, produces more outputs.“

In NSW, the Productivity Commission recently published a report arguing for more in-fill development to reduce commute times and tackle the housing crisis, saying Sydney’s richest suburbs must become “taller” and “denser”.

frank.chung@news.com.au

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