The Legend of Work-Life Balance

Once upon a time, there was an office executive. He went to work early, went home on-time and clocked in 35 hours a week. He loved his wife, his children loved him, they watched YouTube together in the evenings, they went to the zoo on weekends and he and his wife lived happily ever after.

*snaps fingers*

Now back to reality:

This is Asia. A beacon of productivity shining brightly from the East. Our culture has bred a sadomasochist attitude towards work. Japan even has a word to describe “death by overworking in the Japanese workplace”: Karoshi. Today, we see it normal to clock in on average 9 hours a day and continue beyond office hours (70 per cent chose to complete unfinished work in the office while the remaining 30 per cent chose to bring work home, says JobStreet).

It is culture really. Some staff feel awkward if they leave the office before the boss does. Excellence has been imbued in us since young, and we have been conditioned to work hard, work fast and more often than not, equate putting in longer hours to working hard. Some old fashioned bosses still think if you do not stay the hours, send  enough emails or make a quantifiable number of telephone calls; you’re not working hard enough. This attitude is, in a word: sadistic.

We believe that, if you have to work beyond your allotted time, you’re not being effective. Some bosses I know still practice very old fashioned way of doing work: time wasting meetings, unnecessary processes and ineffective management creates barriers that hinders productive work. Bosses: more time spent at work does not equate to more revenue for your business. When an employee starts to lose motivation, or gets worn out from a mundane tasks, it is time to think about how to make work more interesting for this person. Holidays are just quick fixes and whilst salary increases are good, it may not be the best, nor the only way to rejuvenate morale.

The fight for balance

Wouldn’t you like to work for a company that is seen to pursue employee happiness? These employers can be identified easily through the Work-Life Excellence Award logo. (Here’s a list of some of these guys) This award was introduced by The Ministry of Manpower and its purpose is to encourage companies to understand that Work Life balance is not just some fluffy concept.

To help companies, SPRING Singapore has developed an entire host of funds and grants that companies of all sizes can apply for .

These are all good initiatives, yet employers need to see the benefits. We know of companies that push their own anti work-life programs of their own: for example, giving staff freebies by staying at work longer. The culture of working late is deeply set in our society, it is considered an honour and friends are actually quite proud to make perverse brags in everyday conversation about how late, long they’ve worked. This must stop.

Adopting a results-orientated approach

Robert Pozen’s recent article in the New York Times suggests that organisations should take a results-orientated approach rather than an “hours-centric” one, setting mutually-agreed quantitative and qualitative Key Performance Indicators that employees can work towards achieving. This metric would encourage employees to work more efficiently knowing that he/she will be judged by their output rather than “office face-time”.

Working towards a results-oriented culture would also reap a multitude of benefits for the organisation. The work-Life Balance Index, published by Regus, points to a connection between a good work-life balance and higher productivity. Employees would also feel less burnout leading to a lower turnover rate, better employee retention and less of the organisation’s resources wasted on recruitment. With Singapore going into a labour crunch, employers with foresight would do well to retain their current batch of employees.

Mind-set shift of employees

In the debate of work/life balance, fingers fly instinctively to employers as the source of grief. Workers do not see that they themselves have been a product of a society that from an early age put great weight on being competitive. This magazine believes that employees need to step up and take responsibility for their own work-life balance, pushing and enforcing boundaries that would help them achieve a good compromise. It is up to us to prioritise what is important and choose not to let peer-pressure or unrealistic expectations from employers affect a good work-life balance. Only when there is collective effort from employees demanding policies that promote work-life balance or choosing to work for organisations that implement such policies will the tide turn significantly, forcing organisations to re-look at creating a conducive and family-friendly work environment to continue to attract workers.
Have your cake and eat it?

Ultimately, organisations must be ready for some comprimise. The proprietor, board of directors or CEO must understand that their motivation is stronger than the average employee’s. Instead of foisting corporate ideals onto a weary workforce, it is far more profitable to life through the eyes of a salaried employee. Money is great, is important and forms the basis of employment in the first place. Next comes people management: creating an ideal environment, pushing for happiness and understanding each individual’s career goals and pushing the right buttons.

Oprah Winfrey once said “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at once.” Maybe not right now but if we demanded for our right to life, a right to leave on-time and the right to spend time and show love for our families, then there will be a light on the horizon: and it will be as bright as the fluorescent tubes that brighten your offices at night.

About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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1 Comment

  • Hi Ben,

    Thanks for writing this article.

    I totally agree that ultimately companies must be willing to compromise. At the end of the day, companies and its leaders must recognise that its employees are its biggest assets and show appreciation by allowing some form of flexibility.

    I recently went for an interview with a company. In fact, we had several rounds of interviews as the company placed a huge emphasis on spending enough time with the prospective employee to allow him/her to understand the company’s goals, work culture and the opportunity to speak to different people working there to get a “feel” of what it is like to work there.

    What I like about this company is that it has a low staff turnover ie lost only 3 pp in 4 years with a headcount of around 50 staff worldwide (Singapore, HK, London and Sydney). So long as the staff meet its KPIs and billing targets, there is time flexibility. The boss cited an example of a top performing staff who is fond of travelling and he has granted him to work a 3-day week, as well as taking a week off every so often when he meets his targets.

    For married women thinking of starting a family, the boss is also open in its discussion and welcomes the idea for female staff returning to work on a part-time basis after maternity leave.

    This is not to mention, motivational trips away in the region as a form of staff reward for the entire company once it reaches its business goals.

    It is a two-way thing. So long as the company recognises the value of results driven approach of managing its staff as opposed to hours centre, it will be challenging for employees to achieve work-life balance. On the employees’ end, they too must to live up to their end of the deal.

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