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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Work hard; Be happy

There’s an interesting report today in ST about a 1,000-worker and 500-boss survey on work-life balance. It threw up some odd results, like how most thought they were “in control’’ of their work-life arrangements although very few took up flexi-work options. Extrapolate further on why they thought they were in control and what comes across is that they can take “emergency leave’’ and “time off’’ at short notice.

Seems we have a very low threshold of pain… I liked what Guardian Health and Beauty chief executive Sarah Boyd said about the survey: “I think for me, the ability to take time off at short notice or emergency leave shouldn’t be considered a part of the frame of reference for work-life balance – it should be a basic human need… If Singaporeans were able to see what work-life balance and flexi-work means in other parts of the world, they would get a very different frame of reference for their decisions.”

I wish this part of the report was expanded further. What DO work-life balance and flexi-work mean elsewhere?

Clearly, Singapore is way behind developed countries in flexi-work arrangements and their take-up rates. Employer Alliance chief Claire Chiang thinks it’s because they had to tackle the problem far earlier – more usual for both men and women to work (gender equality) and families did without maids.

But when it comes to employers staggering working hours or having telecommuting arrangements, the numbers here aren’t that bad. Close to half of employers say they have such arrangements. But workers don’t seem to be taking them up. Some analysts put this down to an addiction to work, and how so much of life now centres on work.
Strikes me that maybe, workers may not know they are available. Or maybe, these are not “structured’’ arrangements offered by the company but ad hoc ones given to those who ask.

Or maybe, as Ms Boyd, said the Singapore workers’ “frame of reference’’ is quite different from elsewhere. (Because there is a maid and family support at home?) So even if we do work long hours, we still find satisfaction in work, as a survey on teachers earlier showed. Our idea of balance is to be able to get time out when there are emergencies, for which we seem to be thankful that bosses understand this “basic human need’’.

Worker: Boss, my 80-year old mother had an accident and is now in hospital ICU. Can I leave now to go see her?
Possible responses:
Boss: No, finish your work first. Your mother will still be in hospital when your work is done.
Boss: And who is going to do your work while you’re away? Me?
Boss: You have no brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, people related to you by blood or marriage who can be with her now?
Boss: Go! Go! This is all part of work-life balance that the company and the country is promoting. Go with my blessings. (Worker keels over in gratitude at the magnanimous gesture.)

Anyway, some interesting findings beyond the top line results:
a. Working mothers with young children is the group most worried about being looked askance if they took up flexi-work arrangements. The survey doesn’t say why but it’s probably because this is the group which most probably HAS to ask for leave and such when boy-boy or girl-girl get sick or get into trouble.

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b. It’s the men who want more work-life balance than the women, saying that their well-being, personal and family life as well as work productivity will be enhanced.

c. While most people say they would be attracted to work in a company which promotes balance, not as many say they will quit if it doesn’t. Guess they are stuck or maybe the pay is good…

d. The 20-somethings form the group most in favour of work-life balance, saying that their family/personal life would “improve significantly’’. Gosh! So young and already want “balance’’, more so than the older cohorts who probably have children and elderly parents to look after…wish they would just work first before insisting on “balance”.

e. Bosses interviewed aren’t tough about demanding face-time with workers or that they work long hours or that they take work home. Seems it’s all in workers’ imaginations. But, here’s the rub: Some 54 per cent of bosses say they should be available to “meet business needs regardless of business hours ‘’ but only 37 per cent of workers agree. So it seems that workers want “real’’ time-out, and not be at the bosses’ beck and call.

g. At the end of the day, it’s the workers’ direct supervisor who is the face of a company in support of work-life balance. About 61 per cent of respondents said their supervisor was “more’’ and “much more’’ supportive compared to the company.
I think (g) is the most important point. A company can put out all the arrangements it wants but it is usually the direct line supervisors who decide access – as well as performance appraisal (!)

Earlier this month, 69 companies and individuals received the “Best Companies for Mums” Awards organised by the National Trades Union Congress Women’s Development Secretariat and Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). It also awards “most supportive supervisors’’. This year, it remembered Dads and added: “Most Enabling Companies for Dads”.

I got hold of a citation for one of the “most supportive supervisors’’ award – for Chan Hoi San of StarHub.

Here is an edited excerpt of the nomination by Eloise Yeo:

“I am a mother of three, and have to rely on family support to take care of my children. Despite the long distance to and from work, Hoi San supports me in times when I have to leave work half an hour earlier so that I can take over the childcare from my mother. The challenges that I have to overcome at home grew when my Dad was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011. He eventually passed away within a month of diagnosis. During that one month, Hoi San allowed me to work from home so that I can take care of my girls while my Mom takes care of my Dad. ..Things weren’t over as after this, my father in-law was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and had to go through rounds of treatment. Hoi San showed her care and concern as a confidant and gave me advice as a friend. When I had to drive to and from work so that I can fetch my girls, she even helped me to seek approval for limited carpark lots in the office so that I do not have to pay a huge amount of carpark fees every day. At this juncture, I am faced with the illness of my mother and the birth of my third child. I am truly at the most difficult moment of my personal and work life. Hoi San once again supported me in my half day work arrangement to manage the home front and work demands. Through my trials and challenges faced at home and my family, Hoi San has never doubted me. She gave me her full trust and support time and again. I really wouldn’t be able to continue my work and manage my family if not for her constant support, reassurance and advice.”

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At the end of the day, it’s really the people you work with that counts.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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