In drawing attention to the needs of working mothers, Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo resurfaced what remains a stubborn challenge everywhere. Pivotal demographic changes have led to higher participation rates of women in the labour force. Here, it rose from 45 per cent in 1990 to over 60 per cent last year, with a distinct peak at the 25 to 29 age group and a smaller one at the 45 to 59 age group. Younger women with children, in particular, need more support as four in five among them are working mothers. But help isn't always forthcoming at work.
The principles to help foster a family-friendly culture go back to 2004 when a National Tripartite Advisory Panel emphasised the mutually reinforcing outcomes of work and family life. Supportive workplaces help women care for the family, and keeping the family on an even keel helps them to add more value at work. "A family-friendly workplace is a higher-performing organisation," declared the panel, with attendant benefits like talent retention, improved productivity, stronger motivation and lower absenteeism.
Enlightened employers might see the value of harmonising work life and family life both from the human resource management perspective and the broader national goal of population viability. An ageing and dwindling population, like that of Japan, can pass a point of no return which some refer to as "demographic suicide". To avoid such a future, Singapore needs to have in place sound arrangements that can allow young mothers to play two important roles well. Women should not be deterred from having babies because the odds of dual success are stacked against them. Help for them can take the form of flexible options on the use of maternity leave, part-time work, teleworking, job sharing, a compressed work week or other adjustable work arrangements.
Small and medium-sized businesses might view these steps as daunting given their limited resources. But such employers can simplify the challenges by tailoring such schemes to ensure their operational needs get due priority. Critically, employees should be involved in the change process. The tripartite panel had urged all employees to "work with their managers to design flexible work arrangements that do not compromise business outcomes", use these schemes appropriately and communicate well with their colleagues so no one is caught out when covering arrangements are needed. Mrs Teo advocated a "mutually supportive" culture in workplaces that can prove useful at different stages of an employee's life cycle - from nurturing a young family to caring for aged parents. Other personal needs might arise as well from time to time. A quid pro quo approach to covering for a peer at work, undertaken responsibly and efficiently, will go a long way to help all achieve a satisfactory work-life balance.