Pandemic flexi-work a boon for women but also brings more stress

More clarity needed on how those working at home can disconnect when they need to, say panellists

The panellists at the Conversations on Singapore Women's Development virtual dialogue yesterday were (from left) Dr Bicky Bhangu, a council member of the Singapore National Employers Federation; Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow H
The panellists at the Conversations on Singapore Women's Development virtual dialogue yesterday were (from left) Dr Bicky Bhangu, a council member of the Singapore National Employers Federation; Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang; and MP Yeo Wan Ling, director of NTUC's Women and Family Unit and U SME.PHOTO: NTUC

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 yesterday, organised by the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and National Trades Union Congress' (NTUC) Women and Family Unit.

Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang said during the session that there is now more flexibility for caregivers who also work.

"But it has, at the same time, brought new pressure points," she added. "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, she said at the session, which involved nearly 70 employers.

Ms Gan said the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces - issued last November by the Ministry of Manpower, SNEF and NTUC - is a step in the right direction to manage any risks that may arise from flexible work arrangements.

SNEF council member Bicky Bhangu said that as most firms now have flexible work arrangements in place, employers can better examine how women's career progression needs can be supported.

On the importance of workforce resilience and diversity, Ms Gan said: "At the peak of Covid last year, we saw a reduction in the 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 very well."

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

The 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 director of both NTUC units.

"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 in fields that are usually male-dominated, such as in the logistics and audio-visual industries, she added.

"I think we can break through glass ceilings and stereotypes to let women know they can do anything."

In the virtual dialogue, employers said 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 woman's place is more in the house, while men are the breadwinners.

"This mindset takes time to overcome... so it's also about changing that so women can be financially independent by joining the workforce, but are also able to balance work and family."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2021, with the headline 'Pandemic flexi-work a boon for women but also brings more stress'. Subscribe