Juggling work and family time, achieving good work-life balance is possible

Achieving a good work-life balance is possible with understanding employers and flexible working arrangements, say some parents

Good work-life balance - what does it really look like?

Its contours are vague, definitions different.

"What constitutes a healthy work-life balance will vary substantially between individuals and families. Some people may be able to tolerate more demanding working conditions than others," says Dr Jonathan Ramsay, a lecturer at the Human Resource Management Programme at SIM University.

He offers a working definition.

"For most parents with office jobs - especially those with young children - a work-life balance would involve being able to spend the majority of their evenings and weekends with their children," he says.

Part of achieving work-life harmony is through communication, the sharing of thoughts and experiences and knowing that you love one another.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR THANG LENG LENG on parents spending time with their children

A study commissioned by the Families for Life Council found that one in 10 people spent six hours or fewer in a week with their families, indicating a poor work-life balance.

In the survey reported last month, one in two respondents felt their long working hours were an obstacle to their spending more time with their family.

Dr Ramsay says: "Employees will feel confident reclaiming their rights to personal and family time only if managers and organisations create a supportive environment."

For instance, managers should make clear that employees will be evaluated on the quality of their contributions rather than how long they stay in the office.

Parents, on their part, should be mindful of the quality of interactions with their children.

Says Associate Professor Thang Leng Leng, a council member at Families for Life, a group that promotes resilient families: "As parents, we want to spend time with our young children, but we sometimes end up scolding or nagging them, telling them to go and shower or do their homework.

"We should think carefully about what we should be doing together and talking about, even if it's watching a video on YouTube and laughing over it.

"Part of achieving work-life harmony is through communication, the sharing of thoughts and experiences and knowing that you love one another."

The Sunday Times talks to some parents who believe they have achieved a satisfactory work-life balance.

Time with kids is a luxury

A good work-life balance can be a comparative concept.

Mr Gordon Zhong, 31, finds no cause for complaint about the duration of his regular work day, which is often 12 hours long.

The head of a marketing department at a manufacturer of electric motors says: "Right now, I have a routine and I can see my children every day. Being able to reach home by 8 or 9pm is a form of luxury."

Before the birth of his two daughters, Vera, three, and Kiera, seven months, he worked in the navy as an electrical specialist, which took him away from home for up to a month at a time.

This was clearly far from ideal for family life and he left the navy in 2010 after five years there.

While his work day now is still long, it is compensated for by his wife's shorter working hours.

Mrs Evelyn Zhong, 30, who teaches at West Spring Primary School, picks up Vera from her childcare centre by 4.30pm on weekdays.

This gives her about four hours with Vera and Kiera until 9pm. Getting a domestic helper, who cares for Kiera at home, late last year also "relieved a lot of our work-life struggles", says Mrs Zhong.

West Spring Primary School's flexible work arrangements include a ban on work-related e-mail and texts before 7.30am and after 5pm on weekdays, as well as over the weekend.

Teachers need not return to school on Saturdays and for most of the school holidays. They also get two days in the work week where they can leave for home immediately after class, at about 2pm.

"I have friends who get home at about 8pm and barely get one or two hours with their kids," says Mrs Zhong, who resumes working at home from 9pm for up to 11/2 hours.

"Compared with my peers, I'm able to enjoy more of a work-life balance, thanks to my school."

The school was recognised by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices in April, winning its Exemplary Employer Award 2016.

While Mrs Zhong feels that there is no "perfect" work-life balance, her present arrangement gives her fulfilment.

"I want to be a good teacher and a good mother, juggling both roles and making it work," she says.

Mum does not work on weekends

Running her own business has helped Ms Nanette Zehnder, 42, optimise her time as a single parent.

Ms Zehnder, founder of Mosaic Workshop, which specialises in mosaic-making, typically schedules work and appointments in the morning.

After her staff take over in the afternoon, she spends time with Megan, her nine-year-old daughter. She does not work on weekends.

This arrangement allows Ms Zehnder, a divorcee, to have meals with Megan whenever possible and also to drive her to tuition and ballet classes.

After the Primary 4 pupil goes to bed at about 9.30pm, Ms Zehnder, who is also a parent volunteer at Megan's school, might resume working till 11pm. She does not have a domestic helper.

It can be "very taxing" to be a single mum, she says, pointing to the need "to be good cop, bad cop, fun cop" and attend to so many aspects of caring for her child on her own.

Nevertheless, she feels "blessed" with her work-life balance.

"I cannot imagine if I were working a 9am to 6pm job. There is not enough time to guide your child when it comes to homework," she says.

While being her own boss has its challenges, such as not having a fixed monthly income or annual leave, she is able to delegate work to her two full-time and two part-time employees.

Her routine enables her to help Megan revise for her examinations. She even sits in for part of her daughter's tuition lessons.

"I learn with her so I know what's going on, then I will understand how it feels to be a student at this time. "It's not like when we were kids. Mathematics never used to be so tough," she says.

"Work-life balance is not only about having more time with her. I have to have more empathy. I don't want her to stress herself. I want to ensure she has enough play time," says Ms Zehnder, who regularly takes Megan on outings to places such as farms and artisanal markets.

While she admits she does not have much of a social life, it still takes discipline to maintain the work-life balance she has in place.

"Sometimes when you work, you get carried away. I need to tell myself: Stop. I need to have self- discipline to know when it is time with Megan, when she needs to spend time with Grandma and when she needs time for herself," she says.

Meeting extended family to bond

Ms Ginny-Ann Oh, 41, gets to spend time with her extended family four days a week.

These dinners and gatherings on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday can involve up to 20 family members, involving various combinations of her two children's grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

"It was a deliberate decision to maintain these ties. When a child is surrounded by so much love, it's a wonderful feeling that you're never alone," says Ms Oh, a director at public relations firm Asia PR Werkz.

"It's not just that I'm here for my children. It's about having enough time for everyone."

She says this clan-wide bonding helps with character development as it teaches her children, Sophia, nine, and Darius, 11, how to respectfully invite their grandparents to join in a meal and other values.

Her parents looked after Sophia and Darius before they went to school.

Although that responsibility now falls to the family's domestic helper, Ms Oh's parents still help out, for example, by ferrying the children to medical appointments.

Ms Oh, who has two siblings, and her husband, sales manager Loong Yong Boon, 46, who has five siblings, have always been close to their families.

When Darius and Sophia were toddlers, Mr Loong turned down a job that involved frequent travelling.

Although Ms Oh admits she struggles sometimes to refrain from checking her mobile phone while at home, she says that flexible work arrangements at her PR agency have helped her achieve work-life balance in an industry known for its long hours.

These measures include claiming time off for working late and weekends and generally moving away from a culture that she experienced earlier in her marketing and communications career, when the boss watched the clock and leaving the office on time was frowned on.

She and her husband also make time for Sophia and Darius, for example, by helping them revise their schoolwork in the evenings.

But the fact remains that for them and many other working parents, after-work hours with their children during the week can be short.

Sophia, who is in Primary 4, says: "We see papa and mama only two hours a day."

Despite the challenges, such as little couple time for her and her husband, Ms Oh says: "We've found a certain equilibrium between work and family commitments. We're quite happy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Juggling work and family time'. Print Edition | Subscribe