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A Time Use Survey: The why, the who, the need, the when, and the how

Introduction of the Modular Online Time Use Survey (MOTUS)

Please read the why, who, need, when and how for a Time Use Survey. Then write to your Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister, Ministers, Office for Women stating your strong support for the effective collection of this data in a cost effective manner citing the MOTUS mixed-method option/proposal and link this page.
MOTUS mixed-method option – Author: Professor Lyn Craig

Why a Time Use Survey?

Time use surveys (TUS) provide information essential to measure and contextualise economic activity and identify opportunities for greater national productivity.

Time use surveys provide information for decision making that is unavailable using other measures. Time diaries provide an exhaustive record of all activities undertaken over a day or week, yielding a versatile reusable resource that can serve multiple and unanticipated objectives. Strengths include accurate time measurement, information on the frequency and timing of activities, where and with whom activities take place, interrelationship between activities and between the activities of different individuals. Attempts to collect this information using more conventional survey instruments are unacceptably error-prone. Regular time use surveys allow cross-national comparisons and the study of trends.

Who else does them?

Countries now collecting regular time use data include New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK, South Africa, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Italy, South Korea, Japan, China, India, Brazil, Argentina. The data are used internationally to enhance decision-making in numerous areas.

Benefits to productivity

Valuing the unpaid economy

  • multiple countries quantify time spent doing unpaid work, e.g. elder and childcare, housework and other productive activities that can be outsourced, to determine the financial value of this nonmarket production
  • this information is necessary to meet international obligations under United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5,  used to compute satellite accounts to GDP (a UN national development goal) and to assess the economic cost of displacing nonmarket production

Source: ABS Time Use Survey 2006. Note: the latest available trend data is from 2006.


Time use data gives unique information relevant to employment and labour supply, e.g. identifying

  • barriers to women’s labour market participation, factors contributing to gender pay and wealth gaps, e.g. gender division of labour, how care work impacts women’s other activities, reduces retirement incomes
  • how resources are re-allocated over business cycles, e.g. how much time unemployed spend in job search, doing unpaid household production, substitution between eating out and eating in
  • effects on productive time allocation of workplace conditions including flexibility, sick leave, paid parental leave, working at home, non-standard work schedules, multiple jobs, split shifts, part time work
  • how parents’ work force participation is affected by the sequence of daily time commitments involved in using services such as childcare; school start and finish times; housing location and commuting times; partners’ workforce participation and contribution to nonmarket work
  • the changing nature of work, growth of underemployment e.g. in the gig economy which groups are most affected, how are they juggling their time commitments, what work is outside conventional market?


  • parental time commitment, including developmental activities to enhance learning, volunteering at school or sports, supporting learning and engagement
  • relationship of school location, start times, and scheduling with young people’s sleep patterns, commuting, time screen time; extra curricula activity; quantity and nature of time with friends
  • time committed to employment and study – how compare to other countries, effect on learning outcomes?
  • enhance returns to national investment in human capital by identifying time barriers to finding work
  • Australian female workforce participation low despite high rates of tertiary education, particular issues motherhood, single parents
  • young people spending longer in education, but taking longer to secure permanent full time jobs, with more short term contracts and interning, their patterns of unpaid work and job search.

Health, disability and ageing

TUS data provide unique information relevant to health status and quality of life, and incidence of behaviours contributing to obesity, rising health costs and lost productivity, e.g.

  • unpaid overtime, overwork, burnout and time stress
  • time commitment and time strain e.g. dual earner households, single parents; father involvement/absence
  • patterns of sleep, exercise, and eating; time costs associated with food preparation
  • accessibility to healthy food by neighbourhood; behaviours associated with grocery shopping, e.g. how long it takes people to travel to markets, how they get there, and with whom they go
  • time in the company of others: social inclusion, social isolation and mental health
  • social-distancing public health policies in the wake of epidemics; exposure to pollution
  • older people’s labour force participation, social engagement and nonmarket production, including extent of grandparental childcare supporting daughters working
  • nonmarket time devoted to aged and disability care, subsiding public and private services

International agenda (Foreign Affairs)

TUS data would support multiple international processes and reporting obligations, e.g.

  • implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially no.5 Gender Equity
  • implementation of annual Agreed Conclusions from UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
  • engagement and participation in the international human rights systems
  • human rights treaty reporting, including International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

There are industry-specific uses of time use data that could support commercialisation as well as public policy planning. For example, the timing of energy use; public transport use and time spent commuting; consumption patterns of broadcasting, sporting, museum and art events; participation in civil activities, volunteering; timing of accessing medical care; timing of shopping including whether weekend trading adds to cash flow or merely facilitates timing change, and consequences for the productivity of commercial enterprises and their workers.

The data

The data will be useful to the following agencies: Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Employment, Department of Social Services, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Treasury, Office for Women. If all participated, the cost could be shared at $1mill each.


Could be factored into new policy proposal for the 2018-19 Commonwealth Budget

Previous approach: paper-based and expensive

The previous time use surveys conducted by the ABS (1992, 1997, 2006) used paper and pencil diaries. They require a pre- and post- interview, a leave-behind diary and extensive manual post-coding. The ABS recently estimated the cost of repeating this approach at $15 million.

New approaches: mixed method and cheaper

A new less expensive approach lead by Prof Lyn Craig (Melbourne University) using successfully trialled internationally accepted methodology is currently before Government for consideration using online surveys (an online app) supplemented by paper diaries. This methodology is being investigated to reduce the high cost of data collection and coding while remaining compatible with existing collections cross nationally and comparable in size to the previous ABS surveys. Currently, the approximate cost over 4 years for collection and preliminary analysis is $7 million.

What you can do

Write to your Member of Parliament, the Ministers for: Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Employment, Department of Social Services, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Treasury, Office for Women stating your strong support for the effective collection of this data in a cost effective manner citing the MOTUS mixed-method option/proposal. In your message to them, link to this page.