The rhetoric on whether a work-life balance for Singaporeans is sustainable has been hotly debated. In some sectors, it has leveraged better staff retention, increased productivity, and enhanced career growth but at what cost? High stress levels, long working hours, decreased family time, and marital strife are some of the consequences highlighted by this paradigm shift in work-centric Singapore.
While change is evident, it has not been enough to change Singapore’s ranking as the number 1 country exhibiting the longest working hours globally (Ministry of Manpower 2014). The result speaks for itself with reported poor work-life balance among Singaporeans (Morgan McKinley 2014) and an increase in work-related high stress levels being blamed for getting in the way of quality family time (Survey of Social Attitudes of Singaporeans 2013).
In fact, the latter survey showed more people (especially 58% of male respondents) stating that work got in the way of their desire for more family time. This is an increase from 47% in 2009.
How does this compare with our Asian competitors? According to the MOM's Quarterly Labour Market Report (2014), Singaporeans worked an average 2,389.4 hours compared to Taiwanese (2,163 hours), Japanese (1,735 hours), and South Koreans (2,193 hours).
Respective governments have taken measures to reduce working hours with more staff incentives and legislated paid holidays. For example, South Korea increased its public holidays to 16 days; Japan decreasing its working hours by lowering its legislated working hours limit and simultaneously increasing its paid holidays to 18.5 days per annum. Taiwan is reducing its working hours in 2016 by cutting the work week to 40 hours and with surrounding ASEAN countries trying to decrease their working hours and placing a higher importance on better work-life balance.
But can Singapore afford to follow suit?
In June 2015, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong eloquently put Singapore’s position into perspective. "If you look at other countries: Vietnam, China, and even India, they are not talking about work-life balance; they are hungry, anxious, about to steal your lunch. So I think I’d better guard my lunch."
As a rapidly growing economy whose only natural resource is its human talent, Singapore cannot sustain its economic growth rate without consequences. Longer working hours has now become the norm. This has concomitantly impacted on work culture, values, and practices sadly.
In fact, high consumers of talent are industries that are the life blood of the island’s economy namely IT, Banking, Construction, and Service industries. Each is struggling presently to keep up with demand resulting in an increase in imported foreign talent to meet needs.
So why are some Singaporeans prepared to sacrifice work-life balance in favour of career growth? The quest for a perfect work-life balance is a powerful short-term goal, influencer, and nourisher of social and personal change. It is directional, motivational and inspiring. However, as a long-term goal, it remains "an ideal towards well-topia".
It is not, however, sustainable in the long term because we are constantly bombarded, pulled, and even coerced to make daily uncomfortable choices for the better good of others and not always for ourselves. Social, family, spiritual, and work-related spiraling demands affect personal time and resources; with either positive or negative consequences in tow.
It takes hard work, effort, and insight to meet the most basic needs which constantly tug at our emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health.
It is little wonder that striving for a sustainable work-life balance is the single root cause of increased stress levels, unhappiness and discord at work, spiraling frustrations, negativity, and poor decision-making. An unhappy worker makes for low productivity, low work commitment, and decreased loyalty.
Yet, "Worrying about work-life balance is not a luxury the low income have”, said Cindy Ng-Tay, Assistant Director of Covenant Family Service Centre. Work is a life line for many families, so necessity trumps choice albeit limited choice, over long working hours.
So how do we move from this problem state to a solution state?
Many global conglomerates have taken heed and are incorporating more inclusive work culture; one that instills and nourishes a sense of community, loyalty, and self-pride within and outside the workplace. Google and FaceBook have on-site games rooms, quiet spaces, and even sleep pods. There are also onsite crèches and family-friendly training programmes as well as housing subsidies nearer place of work.
Not all companies in Singapore can afford such luxuries but the underlying concept remains the same: the creation of an inclusive community, that works together for the better good of self (and family) and organisation.
We need to move from an I-Centric state towards a WE-centric state and vice versa. Optimum performance at work must also include Learning and Enjoyment in equal proportions.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Jennifer Rahman is a global personal empowerment and business leadership coach, published author, educator, and founder of Lifemaxx International. Born and educated in Singapore, Jennifer has 20 years' experience in public relations, management, coaching, and holistic therapy. She was the International Head of Operations for the International Institute of Coaching and Mentoring (IIC&M).