Commentary: Let's review our assumptions about work-life balance
Successfully managing our work-life balance can lead to better well-being but we need to first appreciate the complex relationship between work and life, say three business observers.
SINGAPORE: It’s no wonder work-life balance is a commonly discussed topic in modern societies like Singapore.
For one, we’re always complaining about how “awful” our work–life balance is, according to a 2016 survey by salary benchmarking site Emolument.
Never mind that significant progress has been made through schemes that promote flexible working arrangements in local companies.
In the early 1990s, “work–life balance” became a popular topic thanks to Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. She explored how employment had created such high demands on Americans that there had been a sharp decline in the quality of their life due to a lack of leisure time.
Most Singaporeans would agree that the situation is not any different today. In fact, the current talk in Singapore is that work-life balance is at best an ideal to strive towards.
At worst, work-life balance is proverbial, elusive and even depressing to think about
Yet the debate surrounding work-life balance in government, industry and academia often occurs without a clear understanding of what it is.
Furthermore, various interpretations of work-life balance are based entirely on misconceptions about work, life and employee attitudes.
NOT A 50/50 DIVIDE
First, many of us think of work–life balance as an equal distribution of time between work and non-work activities.
This 50/50 approach to assessing work–life balance pits both work and life against one another.
It also suggests that life as a whole is something we can divide as we wish.
But “work” and “life” are elastic. We are constantly reinforcing or redefining our work-life boundaries in response to our needs, constraints and life phases.
For example, the self-employed (including freelancers and small business owners) are known to work longer hours per week, often working through weekends and even forgoing holidays. Yet in studies involving the self-employed, most seemed to be more satisfied with their work–life balance than employees holding a 9-to-5 office job.
More recently, work-life studies are showing that individuals who seem to “have it all” thrive on a sense of balance rooted in a strong belief in their own ability and daily recovery from work- or life-related stress.
ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION ABOUT WORK
Second, work experiences are often discussed in a bad light, such that any interference from work to non-work is bound to be harmful. The conversation surrounding work-life balance remains largely one-sided.
Work is often associated with stress, anxiety, conflict (with colleagues, supervisors and family members) and other negative health-related symptoms (including insomnia and heart disease). It is seen as an activity that intrudes into other non-work spheres (relating to the family, social, and community) and reduces an individual’s overall well-being.
On the contrary, we derive resources (including psychological, physical, intellectual and monetary gains) from multiple life roles including work. Other than monetary benefits from work that are needed to sustain livelihood, all of us experience satisfaction, fulfilment, a sense of purpose, skill and knowledge enhancements from our work.
As a result, we are better able to cope with the demands and challenges arising from other non-work spheres. We also feel happier, more optimistic and confident.
Such a phenomenon is called “work-to-family enrichment”. Its positive impact on employees’ well-being and life satisfaction has been proven in many studies.
WORK AND LIFE SHOULD BE SEPARATED
The other common misconception is that work and life should be separated.
The ideal of compartmentalising our work and non-work spheres may sound appealing in a self-help book, but we all know reality is much more fluid.
Dual earner couples are now the norm in Singapore. The older norms of a breadwinner husband and a homemaker wife are fast becoming irrelevant.
As anyone who has received a call from their child’s school during work hours knows, the barrier between our professional and domestic spheres now resembles a door more than a wall.
Individuals no longer make a strict or marked distinction between work and non-work as they progress through each day. They work when needed, and attend to non-work demands when needed.
With mobile devices, Singaporeans are now able to switch between their work and non-work spheres by making use of flexible working arrangements, where offered by their employers.
NEED TO GO BEYOND ZERO-SUM APPROACH TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Successfully managing the work-life interface has been shown to lead to increased creativity, organisational commitment and well-being. To achieve this in Singapore, we need to appreciate the complex relationship between work and life.
We need to go beyond the current zero-sum approach to work-life balance.
Work-life balance is definitely achievable, supported by flexible working arrangements, the strategic use of mobile devices and realistic work-life balance goals.
The underlying assumptions the current work-life debate draws upon need to be re-examined. What are the factors contributing to the perceived lack of work-life balance? Is it the time pressure, or the long work hours?
Might it be that in companies' unending quest for higher productivity, the work tempo of employees has actually gotten worse?
Or could it be that changing consumer behaviour and lifestyle aspirations are driving Singaporeans to work harder to climb the career ladder, sacrificing their non-work priorities in the process?
Another relevant issue is the gendered division of labour that pervades Singapore, such that married working women continue to contribute more to caregiving and household chores than married working men.
Unfortunately, none of the ongoing debates on work–life balance seem to be discussing these issues.
We need to start having a conversation on matters more relevant to a balanced work-life, which would enhance Singaporeans’ job satisfaction, family satisfaction and life satisfaction.
Carys Chan is assistant professor at RMIT University's College of Business. David Cheng is lecturer at the Australian National University's College of Business and Economics. Justin Field is principal organisational development consultant at Oracle and adjunct lecturer at the University of New England's Business School.