A study quoted in The Straits Times (May 30, 2011) found that Singaporeans are the world’s unhappiest workers.

Only 12 per cent felt that workplaces in Singapore are supportive and positive versus a global average of 20 per cent.

For a nation that is well known for its human capital-led accomplishments and the strong work ethics of its people, this study is a wake-up call to embrace new-world work methods to maintain its competitive edge.

In today’s marketplace, pay packets can quickly be matched by other employers. Top talent therefore now seek other motivations, such as improved work-life balance (WLB).

Work and home environments today are big influences on each other.

An employee cannot be a committed parent or spouse if the workload is out of control.

Similarly, having a chronically ill parent or a child with special needs can create demands and stress that impact employee performance at work.

Peter Drucker famously noted that one hires the whole worker and not just a pair of hands.

There are many myths about WLB that must be cleared before such initiatives can take root and be successful:

Myth 1: It matters only for women

A large number of people believe that WLB is a woman’s issue and affects only women who get married or who have children.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the number of dual career couples goes up, men can no longer rely on the safety net of a woman at home to take care of the household.

This in turn puts pressure on men who  start to feel the stress of trying to keep some balance between home and work.

Additionally, many younger employees are being called upon to take care of ageing parents or grandparents and being prematurely thrust into care-giving roles.

Consequently, there is a much larger pool of workers, than just women, who are seeking flexibility at work in return for their engagement and commitment.

Myth 2: If you build it they will come

Many organisations believe that putting policies in place is the answer to WLB problems. The truth is that there is a substantial stigma associated with utilisation of these policies.

Some of the stigma arises from gender roles and stereotypes.

For instance, a man taking paternity leave may be seen as a slacker, as childcare roles are associated with women.

Another reason for not utilising WLB policies could arise from fear of replacement at work, particularly in times of recession, or losing out on a promotion.

Myth 3: One size fits all

Many companies assume that WLB means the same thing to everyone. They create policies that appear to be popular.

However, for all employees, balance is not about going home at six every evening or limitless flexibility.

Rather, it is being able to have flexibility as and when the situation arises. Solutions that work for a 20-year-old may not work for a 50-year-old and vice-versa.

Employees must come up with a range of policies created by using a mix-and-match approach (see table below).

Table: Choices to be made around flexible work arrangements

 

Parameter 

Choices 

Type of arrangement 

Formal

Informal

Duration

Short-term arrangement

Long-term arrangement

 Scope

Task-oriented flexibility

Career-oriented flexibility

 Location

Constrained

 No constraints

 Extent of impact

Individual

Group

Myth 4: WLB policies will reduce output and/or quality of work

In our culture, face time has typically been equated with productivity. Thus, flexible work arrangements are viewed with suspicion.

This can easily be managed by putting in output and quality measures that help ensure high productivity.

In today’s world, draconian attempts to police output and productivity often backfire.

For instance, one of my clients required employees to manually punch in at 8am to record their timely arrival.

However, there was no recognition of how late employees may have stayed to get their work done.

As a result, employees would punch in on time but leave the office for coffee breaks, reducing productivity.

Trust begets trust, and the culture of an organisation impacts employee commitment and output.

By offering WLB policies, the management sends the signal of trust and support that is reciprocated by employees.

Myth 5: Flexible work arrangements are a perk and a privilege

Many employers believe that WLB policies should be applied selectively and treated as a reward for good work. They feel that employees with great performance records “earn” the right to have more flexibility.

However, the truth is that WLB policies are enablers of higher performance. Like many other tools that support performance, these should be made available to all.

In the absence of this, a potential star employee may forever remain mediocre due to lack of access to such policies.

WLB policies are an important means of seeking engagement across gender, generation and position.

However, successful WLB programmes need to be backed by good processes and a great organisational culture.

Companies will need to openly examine their practices and see what is relevant in the current times versus holding onto practices from a bygone era. 

A strategic vision, feasible structures and top management commitment can result in employees feeling the satisfaction of balance in their personal and professional lives.

Only then can one reverse the trend of one of the most efficient workforces in the world being among the unhappiest.