Don't get overly obsessed with work-life balance

Workers could end up short-changing themselves career-wise

I have a confession to make: The term "work-life balance" irks me terribly.

Before some start rolling their eyes and dishing out labels such as "workaholic" or even "loser", I must state that I am not one of those who appear to be tethered to their e-mail inboxes or laptops.

I also think that people should not be consumed by work such that they have no capacity for other priorities.

Young & Savvy

In fact, I go on holidays with the intention of being uncontactable because time with my loved ones is always precious. No network connection? Even better.

But let me explain my gripe with the buzzword that seems to be rolling off almost everyone's tongue.

A Randstad World of Work Report published earlier this year found that more Singaporeans placed importance on achieving work-life balance last year compared with the year before.

Last month, 1,000 employees and 500 bosses in Singapore, were polled on integrating work and social life, in a survey jointly commissioned by The Straits Times and Employer Alliance (EA).

The study found that 91 per cent of workers aged 20 to 29 would be attracted to work for companies that support them in managing work and family commitments - the highest among all age groups.

I am part of Generation Y, and though I have been told that work and play should add up in an equation that results in happiness, I have found that there is no magic formula.

Being a journalist often means last-minute assignments just when you think you are done for the day. News happens round the clock, so working on weekends is to be expected.

I was fully aware and prepared for that when I applied for the job. Yet, I soon found myself irritated when friends with regular jobs started pointing out - almost condescendingly - that I have no work-life balance if I cancelled plans from time to time.

At a lunch meeting last month, a public relations veteran told the story of her son who did an internship with a law firm. At the end of the short stint, he concluded: "It was fun, I learnt a lot. But I don't think I want to be a lawyer any more. They work very hard."

And of course, "they have no work-life balance", the teenager said.

How in the world, his mother wondered, was her son already preoccupied with the issue of work-life balance at so young an age?

I have now decided that this construct of maintaining an equilibrium between work and "life" has been making me miserable because in reality, it is almost impossible to attain that balance in a cosmopolitan, fast-paced society like Singapore's.

Yet, there are plenty of anecdotes from employers about young hires who refuse to attend to calls after knocking off work, or demonstrate a bad attitude when they are needed at the last minute.

It might be pertinent for young working adults to think about whether we really have to compartmentalise our lives this way, or if we feel like that only because "work-life balance" is touted as the hallmark of a successful life.

To push it a little more: Who mandated the concept as a way of life anyway?

I recall an article an editor at this paper wrote in 2012. She argued that as we search high and low for high-yielding assets, it is also important to take a step back and remember to keep investing in one's job.

This might be even truer for those of us carving out a career as young adults, for our jobs are likely to be the biggest investment at this point in our lives.

Mr George Chen, financial editor and columnist at the South China Morning Post, wrote in June that young job seekers often complain that employers do not offer enough entry-level opportunities, while bosses say that hiring young employees brings with it an element of uncertainty. He said human resource managers might be rethinking the value of young workers, who seem to be "losing touch with reality".

That is why, when we complain, we could also be short-changing ourselves by not getting the most from our careers.

Some of my friends say they have struck a balance, and it is great if they have truly done so. But I wonder if it is because they have left their employers with little choice, and whether that could stand in the way of being entrusted with chances to play in the big leagues one day.

As my colleague put it when we discussed this column: "Just suck it up until you become your own boss, lah."

There probably are many jobs that require employees to work from only "nine to five", and only five days a week. I doubt such jobs would lead to a five-digit salary though, if that is a young, salaried worker's definition of success.

So, maybe - and just maybe - we should have adequate time for leisure and family but we should also be more flexible about staying back for that two hours to help with a pitch, or stop demanding our right to work-life balance at the job interview.

Employers, for their part, are also trying to introduce "work-life integration" at the workplace. The poll of workers and employers by EA and The Straits Times found that 86 per cent of employers supported initiatives such as staggered hours to help their staff cope with work and family demands.

Make no mistake. I think it is great that my employers are enthusiastic and proactive about making working life easier. There are indeed many colleagues who have children and domestic commitments to attend to, as is the case in all workplaces.

But young, single people without similar responsibilities might have to think about whether work-life balance is their right, and if it is beneficial to be so demanding in their quest for bosses to ensure that balance.

ocheryl@sph.com.sg