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Why work-life balance may not work in Singapore

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It is 8.30am on a typical weekday morning. Jeffrey Chen takes a long, deep breath and tries to calm himself to face the work day ahead.

“I feel like I’ve been awake for half a day already but the official work day is really just starting,” he said.

A typical day in the Chen household begins at 6am. “My wife prepares breakfast while I wake the kids up and get them ready for school. Then, we gobble up our meal, I drop my wife at the bus stop and battle the jam on the expressway to drop the kids off at childcare,” he said. “Then, it is another chock-a- block journey to work.”

For 36-year- old Jeffrey, a manager in the air travel industry, every little moment counts in the morning rush hour – “a wrong turn on the road during peak hour, for example, will mean an additional 10 or 15 precious minutes wasted”, he shared.

Juggling family and work commitments is a tight balancing act for working parents like Jeffrey, and it sometimes adds stress to their lives.

Despite a big national push to get companies and workers to accept the idea of work-life balance, progress has been slow.

A 2016 study by Emolument.com, a salary benchmarking site, found that almost one in two employees (47 per cent) find their experience of work-life balance “awful”. Based on gender, 9 per cent more women than men think their work-life balance isn’t ideal.

Is there a solution in sight?

Seeking balance in Singapore

To be certain, companies are offering more options than ever for employees when it comes to helping them balance their work and life commitments.

According to the latest Working Hours Survey by Morgan McKinley, nearly half of the 1,000 respondents said that their employer offered work-from- home arrangements as an option. Two-thirds said they could exercise discretion on start and finish times and more than a third could take time off in lieu of extra hours worked.

A Manpower Ministry survey in 2015 of 3,800 companies here bore this out too. Some 77 per cent of companies surveyed offered ad-hoc time off or tele-commuting arrangements, but only 47 per cent of companies have at least one formalised arrangement.

It makes sense for companies to do this.

Studies worldwide have shown that having effective work-life balance schemes generally help a company increase productivity and employee happiness. In a 2003 study on 11 Singapore-based organisations, the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) found that for every $1 spent on family-friendly programmes, the organisation reaped a return of $1.68.

More recently, the 2015 MOM survey also showed that firms that offer more flexi-work arrangements had lower resignation rates.

In Singapore, there is significant financial help to support companies looking to set up flexible working arrangements.

There are grants to help fund work-life strategies for the office - a Developmental Grant (up to $40,000) helps employers put in place flexible work arrangements (FWA) and other work-life programmes, while the FWA Incentive (up to $120,000) is meant to motivate employers to support more employees on such arrangements.

Room for improvement

Despite these support measures, many employees continue to complain about long working hours and elevated levels of stress. Some 35 per cent of respondents in the Morgan McKinley survey stated that long working hours remained a problem, and they had to make sacrifices such as spending less time with their friends and family.

Part of the reason is that some bosses continue to hold onto old ideas of employee behaviour, such as “face time” – where employees are physically present in the office.

In-house lawyer Marianne Bok, a mother of two children under eight years old, shared that one of the biggest challenges of being a working mum is “feeling stretched and tired all the time, and having no me-time”.

“My company has a strict start time and a culture of working later than the official knock-off time. I feel that if I was allowed to work from home, during the morning peak hour for instance, I will get more rest and be more productive as I won’t be wasting time in a traffic jam,” she said.

“Instead, I have to wake up early to tend to my kids, and rush to work while being stressed by peak-hour traffic. In the evening, I barely get half an hour with my kids before their bed times.”

The 38-year- old added that she would feel more appreciated – and less of “a commodity” if her employer trusted her to do her job from home when the need arises.

Work-life consultant Evelyn Quek of Work Life Pros said that small companies in particular find it hard to implement work-life measures, even if they want to.

“Sometimes, it’s tough, especially for the small companies that are fully stretched to have staff work off-site. But certainly, having creative and mentally flexible bosses help.”


(Middle, black and white blouse) Ms Fiona Phua believes in the importance of work-life integration, as long as her employees hold up their end of the bargain to finish their work on time.

Another challenge is simply that technology has blurred the lines between work and life. As Goldman Sachs global co-head David Solomon noted, “…technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.”

This could mean that even if employees can physically leave the office to be with their family, work technically does not stop. In that way, workers remain in “always-on” mode, and feel the job stress even at home.

Both workers and bosses say that it is impossible to prevent an inter-mingling of work and life, given how modern society functions.

Instead, what needs to change is the perception that work and life compete against each other. The Berkeley Haas School of Business prefers to use the term work-life integration, instead of work-life balance. The latter signifies two competing forces when instead, melding both elements may end up working better.


Balancing work and life suggests competition. Integrating work and life may be a better way of managing one’s time. Credit: Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Fiona Phua, director of event management company Imagine+, agrees with this approach.

“What is important to me is that I am able to integrate work and life successfully by enjoying what I do each day with managed stress levels and keeping a positive spirit.”

For instance, she does not expect her team members to come to work before 10am.

“Spending time in peak hour traffic is not an efficient use of time. Instead, staff can enjoy their mornings and come to work just after peak hour,” she said.

“We also do not enforce strict rules on reporting time as we trust our staff to be responsible with their work. Our work can be done from home, on the train, or anywhere outside of office.”

But in navigating the blurred lines, employees also need to maintain a discipline that comes with the freedom of working outside the office, said manager John Low, 37.

A father of two children aged below five, John said, “For me, it’s about being fully committed while at work so that you can leave that behind when you get out of the office to focus on the family. No time-wasting meetings, long lunches or multiple coffee breaks.”

John, who works in the medical industry, added that it helps that his immediate supervisor is very supportive.

“Besides having an understanding boss, having a team that is supportive is important as well. I help my colleagues skill up so that they can step-up, take charge and cover my duties, if the need arises,” John said.

But if there is one thing that both employers and employees agree on, making work-life integration work is all about trust.

Employees need to trust that their bosses will give them a fair assessment when it comes to promotions despite being on flexi-work, a point Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say stressed in Parliament last month.

"Women should not have to choose between family and career," he added.

For employers, it’s all about whether the work gets done and in time.

Said Fiona, “Flexibility works well for responsible staff. Staff who take advantage of this flexibility usually impact other team members’ work flow. And if work flow is hindered, we will have a word with them.”

But for now it is clear that work-life integration is gaining acceptance. And that’s a good thing for everyone – a happy worker is a good worker.

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