From ‘Work-life balance: A reality check’, 13 Sept 2012, Voices, Today
(Shafie Halim): We need to turn over every stone to create a conducive environment for procreation. In our fast-paced society, it takes more than dangling baby bonuses, housing carrots, maternity and paternity leave for couples to start a family.
Typically, Singaporeans work more than 44 hours a week, a benchmark set during Singapore’s industrialisation, when factory production lines were emerging and much of the workflow was manual. This has not been reviewed for almost 30 years. Today, many work processes are no longer tied to the number of hours spent at the desk.
Yet, many companies still have a 5.5-day work week. In some developed countries, it is 40 working hours or fewer a week, which makes us appear like an ancient civilisation. At present, work-life balance is a slogan with little reality. Flexible working hours should not be misconstrued as a contribution to work-life balance, as the hours clocked remain status quo.
While ‘ancient civilisations’ did spend more time physically toiling in a day than what we do in the office for an entire WEEK, most of their activities that we no longer define as ‘work’ revolved around finding food, shelter, or harvesting stuff. The rest of it is waiting, sleeping, singing, dancing, killing or having sex with each other. Our ancestors could afford to be poets, bards, monks, barbarians, nomads or the guy who goes around town shouting the latest gossip or putting out the street lamps. Before the invention of the light bulb, they could do nothing at night other than huddling around the fire, creating their own god-stories, mending loincloths, swatting flies, making babies, or training their children to become savage warlords. Some of us aren’t ashamed to ‘work around the clock’, our phones on 24 hours waiting for business or for the boss to text at 3 am in the morning. In a way, with their nasty, brutish, short lives, they achieved more ‘work-life balance’ than any of us will ever have, if you define ‘life’ in Old World terms, which is mostly staying alive and breeding. With all our technology, relative free time and longevity, we’re still having trouble with the latter.
No developed nation is willing to forsake that insatiable drive, that contagious work ethic that has become a First World addiction, for some touchy-feely concept like ‘work-life balance’, which takes the fire out of the ‘striving’ to get where we are today. It’s as distant from reality as a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the happy ending of a cannibalistic Grimm fairy tale, there only to give the warm and cuddly illusion that organisations actually treat their workers as human beings rather than cogs in a machine, like wardens giving prisoners a whiff of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, while they line up waiting to be dispensed a glob of liquid tar in their mugs instead.
‘Busyness’ is a badge of honour. To appear hurried and drained is a peacock’s display of passion and enthusiasm. People stack their files like gladiators showing off battle scars. We vie to be the office ‘workhorse’ and organisations can’t help but reward ‘workaholic’ attitudes. No testimonial of an ‘employee of the month’ is complete without the recipient ‘going beyond’ his scope of work, ‘going the extra mile’, or ‘working even when he had SARS’. We fight tooth and nail for such awards so that we can use these to move on up to the next better job, where we’ll subject ourselves to the same, unyielding, masochistic pleasure of HARD work again. In our job interviews everyone has an anecdote about how they put in long, severe hours to get a project done. You’re not likely to beat the workaholic to the job if you rave about your appreciation of ‘work-life balance’ to your future employer. Most employers only ask about your family out of courtesy, or slyly assess the likelihood of you going on maternity/paternity leave, not to sit entranced by how fulfilling and invigorating your Sunday family picnics are.
We’ve been slogging so long and hard that taking a day off just to ‘do nothing’ elicits yelps of fake envy from your colleagues, when deep down inside they console themselves knowing that they’ve done more in one day than you. But it seems that we have been grumbling about the 44-hour work week for decades. In the eighties, you already hardly had time for the ‘finer things in life’, like music, painting, or even PRAYING. We realised that we’re all working ourselves to death but calming this fever didn’t mean taking LESS hours of work, but rather people telling us HOW to do it better without sacrificing the 44 hour metronome. S Dhanablan told us how to work ‘smarter’, and 5 day work weeks were the stuff of office-drone wet dreams. In the nineties, ‘flexible’ working hours was all the rage, and we started to recognise the importance of a ‘parent-friendly’ workplace. In 2002 came scintillating buzzwords like ‘flexi-hours’, ‘flexi-place’, ‘family friendly’ and the Gaia-like ‘work-life HARMONY’. It’s also sadly ironic that to in order to achieve that ‘harmony’, the MCDS had to create ‘WORK’ groups to look into it, calling its main arm the ‘Work Life Unit’. I’d imagine these people as cherubs who play harps all day long.
To sugarcoat a ’24 hour economy’ with bits and pieces of soothing catchphrases is like sticking smiley faces on a charging bull. We can’t change our attitudes overnight, when working the late shift, burning midnight oil, being ‘too busy to eat’ are among other neurotic habits that our workers are compelled to engage in to feel relevant and on par with their peers. Where management sees effort as a compensating factor for innovation, skill, expertise or even intelligence. Where ‘giving it your all’ feeds that gaping chasm in your soul with the nourishing milk of temporary achievement. You might say you can ‘do no wrong’ working yourself to death. The least you could be is a ‘solid worker’. And for some, that says a lot. Work is a 4 letter word, but like the OTHER 4 letter word, we can’t get enough of it. So it’s not so much unturning stones anymore, as it is pushing a boulder up a hill like Sisyphus, only for it to roll back down to square one again.