Covid-19 has created flexible work for women but it has also brought more stress: Panel

The efforts include restructuring work hours so that women can manage other responsibilities. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has created a silver lining for women and caregivers as many are now better able to juggle household responsibilities while working from home.

However, flexible work arrangements have also created more stress and there needs to be greater clarity on how employees can disconnect from work when they need to.

These were among the issues raised by panellists at the Conversations on Singapore Women's Development virtual dialogue session on Monday (Jan 18), which was organised by the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and NTUC's Women and Family Unit.

Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang said during the session that pandemic-induced flexible work arrangements have brought new opportunities for caregivers who also work.

"But it has at the same time brought new pressure points. While you work from home and have access to family support, some employees have also given feedback that it's actually quite stressful doing two things at once.

This calls for clearer boundaries between work, family and personal time, added Ms Gan at the session, which involved nearly 70 employers.

She said the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces - issued in November by the Ministry of Manpower, SNEF and National Trades Union Congress - is a step in the right direction for Singapore to manage risks that arise from flexible work arrangements.

SNEF council member Bicky Bhangu said that companies can better examine how women's career progression needs can be supported, now that most firms have flexible work arrangements due to Covid-19.

Dr Bhangu added that Singapore needs to strike the right balance between economic interests and re-designing work arrangements.

"We also need to ensure that we look at the wider aspect, that we don't become too narrow and end up hurting our businesses or the economy," he added.

Ms Gan said that Covid-19 has shed light on the importance of workforce resilience and diversity.

"Among our local workforce, how do we increase the productivity and participation rate of the adult population, both men and women? At the peak of Covid last year, we saw a reduction in foreign workforce, so we really had to look deeper at how we could bring back parts of the workforce that we have not been able to tap on very well," she added.

Echoing Ms Gan's point, labour MP Yeo Wan Ling said: "Women who were at home for the last 10 years have been cheering that they want to come back to work. I think this is a perfect opportunity."

Panellists at the dialogue: (From left) Council member of Singapore National Employers Federation Bicky Bhangu, Minister of State for Education and Manpower Gan Siow Huang and director of NTUC's Women and Family Unit and U SME Yeo Wan Ling. PHOTO: NATIONAL TRADES UNION CONGRESS

On the sidelines of the event, Ms Yeo told reporters that the NTUC Women and Family Unit and U SME - the labour movement's small and medium-sized enterprise arm - plan to help SMEs redesign work for women.

These efforts include restructuring work hours so that women can manage other responsibilities.

Another suggestion is for companies to have satellite offices in the heartland so that women can go to work within a 5km radius of their homes, said Ms Yeo, who is the director of NTUC's Women and Family Unit and U SME.

"Many women have told me that they would really like to work in an office environment because of distractions at home but they also need to pick up their child when school ends," she said.

Women can also reskill themselves to take up roles that are usually male-dominated, such as in the logistics and audio-visual industries, she added. "A lot of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are actually still hiring. I think we can break through glass ceilings and stereotypes to let women know they can do anything."

In the dialogue session, employers said that women might turn down career progression opportunities so that they can focus on household responsibilities.

They added that government support is important to push companies to create a more supportive work environment for women. The session was held under the Chatham House rule, which guarantees confidentiality to promote free discussion.

A participant said: "Generally, in Asia, the expectation is that a women's place is more in the house, while men are the breadwinners. This mindset takes time to overcome. Some women also have this mindset, so it's also about changing that so women can be financially independent by joining the workforce and balance work and family."

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