Can Malaysia debunk the work-life balance myth?

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Graphic: Wikipedia

Some people are choosing to work differently, and new ways of getting work done are on the rise. Noor Asmaliza Romlee explores the emergence of new flexible working arrangements.

Kuala Lumpur was recently ranked 40th out of 40 cities surveyed around the world for the most holistic work-life balance. The kotaraya folks have the worst!

The survey also indicated that Kuala Lumpur has the second highest number of people (22%) working 48 hours or more per week. 

Now, does Malaysian culture glamorise overworking? A work-life balance does not mean an equal balance. Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for each of your various work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life is and should be more fluid than that. 

The term workaholic is worn like a badge of honour by many entrepreneurs and executives. But the truth is, in the long run, working relentlessly does not help anyone. Working long hours or on a rigid schedule and sacrificing one’s personal life is not good for any business. 

Those who constantly work more than eight hours a day are at risk of developing mental health issues

The trend of employers demanding that workers put in extra hours or of employees doing so to increase their income has raised concern among health experts, who are seeing more employees clocking 12 hours a day or working 60 hours a week. 

According to Malaysian Medical Association president Dr Ravindran Naidu, cases of depression, anxiety and mental disorder have been on the rise in Malaysia. Work stress was among the leading causes. 

An International Labour Organization report tells us that Malaysians work an average of 40 hours a week. However, more people are working more than 60 hours a week. 

In Malaysia, the number of those suffering from mental health problems has tripled over the past 20 years. If we project this, the estimated loss for Malaysia would be $10.6bn (RM43.6bn) for 2010, rising to $24.3bn (RM99.9bn) by 2030. 

According to a Malaysian Health System Research report (March 2016), mental illness is a leading cause of economic loss for the individual, family, employer and health system and at the national level. This is due to direct and indirect health costs, absenteeism, lost productivity while at work and decreased income – all of which can result in a reduced national economic output. 

Mental health in the workplace should no longer be ignored as it could cost employers and the country billions of ringgit if not properly tackled. It is crucial now for companies and other organisations to take the lead to reduce stress and increase their employees’ wellbeing. 

Researchers argue that flexible working practices facilitate work-life balance, raise employees’ productivity and result in higher organisational profitability. 

Work-life practices represent the future of how work is done and what the workforce of the future expects. 

Findings from the “Life at Work Report on the Implementation and Outcomes of Work-Life Practices in Corporate Malaysia” by TalentCorp found that work-life practices are important in creating a more innovative and integrated work environment. 

The 369 companies across 10 key industries which participated in the study between August and December 2017 agreed that better work-life practices improve their employees’ experience, productivity and wellbeing. These practices comprise flexible work arrangements, work-life benefits and family-friendly facilities. These components are described in the diagram.

The reports also suggest that companies view work-life practices as opportunities to care for their employees while remaining steadfastly committed to their business goals. 

The most common flexible work arrangements are flexible hours (48%), while work-life benefits such as paternity and study/exam leave were offered by 61% of the companies surveyed. The most common family-friendly facilities provided by these companies are nursing/mothers’ rooms (31%).

Hence, it is not a surprise that the implementation of flexible work arrangements among employees has increased substantially over the years across most industrialised countries. 

With the advent of the “fourth industrial revolution” and today’s multi-generational workforce demanding flexibility, one of the biggest perks of any organisation is flexible work arrangements. Such arrangements allow employees to plug-in and work from anywhere. Gone are the days when productivity was measured by the number of hours employees spend behind their office desks. 

Indeed, flexible work arrangements have taken the world by storm. 75% of companies globally were reported by Vodafone Global Survey to have introduced flexible work arrangements to enable employees to vary their hours and use the latest technology to work remotely. 

The study also indicated that 58% of the organisations who introduced such arrangements have seen their profits increase since introducing various flexible work practices.

The informal employment sector under the gig economy has been growing at a faster rate than the formal employment sector. However, this growth has its own set of challenges. 

Gig economy workers – casual labour, freelancers or consultants on a flexible or short-term basis – are subject to inconsistent shift patterns that make it impossible to earn a reliable income. For example, those working for e-hailing services or food delivery providers are not even registered as employees; their status as independent contractors allows the companies to deny them basic rights, like a minimum wage and sickness or holiday pay. 

Despite the growing popularity of freelancing, long-term financial sustainability remains one of the critical concerns for freelancers. Almost two thirds (66%) of respondents to a survey by Inti International University and Colleges did not have a retirement plan. One in three respondents did not have a personal savings plan, while 56% had less than three months’ financial cushion – half the recommended six-month financial buffer.

In 2010, the government introduced the 1Malaysia Retirement Savings Scheme (SP1M). This scheme is meant to cater to the growing number of Malaysians without a fixed monthly salary income, who desire a fund to safely increase their retirement savings. Individuals may voluntarily contribute a minimum of RM50 to their SP1M account up to a maximum of RM60,000 a year. 

While the number of participants in the scheme has been rising slowly over the last few years to about 90,000, this is still not satisfactory. Not every Malaysian is aware of the issue of low retirement savings. 

Why is this so? Is it due to a lack of understanding of the importance of saving for old age? Is it a lack of financial literacy? Or is the rising cost of living making it hard to save?

The higher burden placed on independent workers on flexible working arrangements to take care of their retirement and healthcare insurance points to a greater need for social security nets and higher use of public healthcare services.

As a degree of control over these flexible working arrangements, which depend greatly on the company’s policies (security system, clock-in hours, reporting), trust is a crucial factor in ensuring successful outcomes in flexible environments. 

Organisations and employees typically fear abuse when it comes to work-life practices. The employees and supervisors must agree on a review timeline while the flexi-hours arrangement should be reviewed at least once per year. 

Employees should know that flexibility is not a right, but a sign of commitment and trust. On the other hand, employers have to ensure that salary, bonus and opportunities for training, development and promotion for employees will not be affected by a flexi-hours work arrangement.

Under Malaysia’s employment laws, “independent contractors” such as gig economy workers don’t enjoy the same protection as employees, especially where termination from work and benefits are concerned. 

As a start, Malaysia could look at some options for legislation which balances the interests of businesses and workers. Some countries have already enacted laws which treat all workers as employees unless an employer can prove otherwise. 

The ultimate goal of amending or creating new laws for the gig economy would be to give workers some basic level of protection and for companies, a degree of flexibility. 

Business leaders and policymakers must collaborate to find the optimum balance of flexibility and responsibility. Benefits – certifications, pensions, training funds and more – which were once tied to jobs, now need to be able to travel across portfolio careers. 

Leaders must enable – not prevent – the gig economy and must be responsive to what people want. People are choosing to work differently, and new ways of getting work done are on the rise. 

Just because some people now work differently doesn’t mean they should be marginalised. When flexibility correlates with productivity at work, employees will not be forced to choose one part of their lives over another. 

Noor Asmaliza Romlee, an Aliran member, is now working in the sphere of national talent issues and development in Malaysia. This article is written in her personal capacity and does not reflect the opinion of her employer nor Aliran.

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