Work-Life Balance - Ideal or Illusion?

Worklife Balance

The term “work–life balance” came into popularity in the early 1990s, taken from Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure where she delved into how the pressing demands of employment and increased working hours resulted in the lack of leisure time, and in turn led to a sharp decline in the quality of life. It seems that more than two decades on, the theory still holds true in most modern societies including Singapore.

To many Singaporeans, work-life balance is merely a concept - ideal but elusive.

Myth: Work-life balance means that I spend half of my time at work, and half of my time for my personal commitments.

In an ideal world, “life” is made up of a whole in which we can divide, according to our wishes. But in truth, “work” and “life” are elastic concepts that often blend into each other. We constantly redefine our work-life boundaries in response to our needs and life phases. Hence, the overarching term of work-life balance is subjective and uniquely defined for each individual.

For example, the self-employed (including small business owners and freelancers) often work longer hours, through the weekends and even during vacations. Yet in studies involving the self-employed, majority seemed to be more satisfied with their work–life balance than employees with a fixed-hours job. It appears that these individuals who seem to “have it all” thrive on a sense of balance rooted in a strong belief in their own ability and available outlets to release their work- or life-related stress.

Myth: Work-life balance means that I must be able to separate my work from my life.

The idea of compartmentalising our work and personal life may sound appealing, but highly improbable in today’s day and age of instant gratification and instant connectivity. With boundaries constantly blurring due to the pervasiveness of the Internet and mobile devices, it is impractical to attain the work-life balance ideal that separates the professional and personal realms completely.

This need for separation needs to be relooked at, where the term of “work-life balance” is replaced with the notion of “work-life integration”. Work-life integration is an approach that seeks to create synergies between the areas that define "life": work, home/family, community, personal well-being, and health. 

There has been significant efforts and strategies rolled out in Singapore to promote work-life harmony, such as flexible work arrangements, leave schemes and employee support schemes. Resources such as the Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy are available to advise employers on the flexible working options they can offer their employees.

Studies and surveys have found that millennial professionals prioritise work-life balance when they look for a job, and place importance on whether their work goals can be aligned with their personal goals. In short, it’s not “one or the other” but rather having “the best of both worlds.” As they are likely less concerned about the yearly pay raise or job promotion, this group of job seekers will job-hop or “shop around” until they find the best fit.

Work-life Balance: A Work in Progress

Successfully managing work-life harmony correlates to heightened creativity and increased productivity, as well as better personal well-being. To achieve this in a local context, we need to appreciate the delicate balance between work and life, and continue to offer structural and emotional support for the people who seek it.