SINGAPORE, May 18 — For new mother Nur Sabrina Muhleseddin, being able to enjoy work-life balance is something she values in a job, as it allows her to be present for her son’s milestones.

The 29-year-old digital marketing manager said her priorities have shifted since she gave birth in July last year. She was working in a different company previously, but had sought out a new role four months after becoming a mother.

Being able to balance work with caring for her son is especially important to Ms Nur Sabrina, whose husband works in the hospitality industry as a shift manager — often having to work irregular hours and on weekends.

Her flexible work post-pregnancy would mean that at least one of them — herself or her husband — can be present for their child, she said.

Advertisement

Currently, she works almost entirely from home, save for a few in-person meetings with her clients at their offices about once or twice a week.

“I think presently, nothing is more important than to be able to witness my son growing up and being around for his milestones.

“I’ve had a good few years of working up the ladder. Right now, I just need a job so that I can provide food on the table and share the bills with my husband,” said Ms Nur Sabrina.

Advertisement

Echoing her sentiments is 29-year-old Ms Chua, who works in a human resource software company.

The marketing specialist, who declined to give her full name to prevent identification by her employer, started her career in a public relations agency which “didn’t provide for much work-life balance.”

“I felt it was really tiring not only at work, but it also fed off my energy with my friends and family as well, and I didn’t have the capacity to do that.”

As such, when she was looking for a new job, Ms Chua hunted specifically for roles that could give her the work-life balance she was seeking.

Today, Ms Chua is employed by an Australian company, which allows her to perform her role 100 per cent remotely from Singapore.

Ms Chua, who is married, said she is hoping to also start a family in the future, so having such flexibility is crucial to her.

To her, being able to be present — not just at work, but also with her friends and family — is key to building an all-round holistic life, she added.

For new mother Nur Sabrina Muhleseddin, being able to enjoy work-life balance is something she values in a job, as it allows her to be present for her son’s milestones. — TODAY pic
For new mother Nur Sabrina Muhleseddin, being able to enjoy work-life balance is something she values in a job, as it allows her to be present for her son’s milestones. — TODAY pic

The approach embraced by Ms Nur Sabrina and Ms Chua reflects a growing shift among Singapore workers towards prioritising work-life balance — with many recognising that work is not everything, along with a desire to also spend more time on personal pursuits.

Alluding to this shift in a speech after being sworn in as Singapore’s fourth prime minister on Wednesday (May 15), Mr Lawrence Wong said: “They (younger Singaporeans) will strive and work hard for their goals, but they do not wish to be trapped in an endless rat race of hyper-competition.

“They want a refreshed Singapore Dream — one that is not defined by material success alone, but also offers meaning and purpose in their careers and lives.”

He added that the Government would thus find “new ways to be productive and innovative”, and to help a new generation of workers “achieve a better balance where work is purposeful, and life is meaningful”.

One of the ways this is being explored is through flexible work options, which allow employees to carve out a suitable work-life rhythm tailored to their individual needs at different life stages.

From December this year, all firms in Singapore will be required to have a formal process in place for their employees to request for flexible working arrangements.

The release of the guidelines last month has also reignited debate on the issue of work-life balance and flexible work, which has long attracted polarising sentiments — even to the extent of some questioning whether Singapore workers have increasingly lost their hunger and drive.

In the wake of the announcement, some employers had also come out to say that they may even rethink hiring local staff, and instead look overseas for recruitment.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Suhaimi Salleh, chief executive officer of consultancy and professional training firm SSA Group, said it is crucial to consider the “broader implications” of demanding better work-life balance and flexible work arrangements, especially in a globalised job market.

“If local employees insist on full flexibility for roles that can be equally efficiently performed remotely by workers in lower-cost locations like Manila, they may inadvertently pit themselves against foreign talents who can accept lower salaries.

“This scenario could potentially disadvantage local applicants, as the cost of employing a similarly qualified individual in Manila may be significantly lower than employing a Singaporean for the same role,” he added.

The debate also begs the broader question: In resource-scarce Singapore, is it too much for employees to seek a better quality of life by way of better work-life balance?

Or must its workforce — as the nation’s prime resource — remain in a perpetual state of being “kiasu” (Singlish for “scared to lose”), for fear of others stealing its rice bowl and Singapore’s labour force ultimately losing its competitive edge?

Work-life balance a ‘basic right’?

Recent surveys have found a growing expectation among the Singapore workforce for greater work-life balance.

A survey done by recruitment firm Randstad in 2023 found that more respondents are prioritising work-life balance over salary: Ninety-five per cent of Singapore workers said that having work-life balance is important to them in their current and future jobs, compared to 90 per cent who said pay is important.

Human resource and sociology experts told TODAY that while the Covid-19 pandemic may have accelerated the demand for better work-life balance and flexible work as more employees recognise the feasibility of such arrangements, the growing expectation for work-life balance is ultimately not a new phenomenon.

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist from National University of Singapore (NUS), said that even before working from home became a feature of the new post-pandemic work norm, there has been a “silent but significant value shift towards prioritising work autonomy and quality of life” — and, in turn, work-life balance — with Singapore becoming a more affluent, post-materialist society.

Dr Shannon Ang, an assistant professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said that the contradictions of constantly prioritising economic growth over “life” also gradually get brought to the forefront, or become more acute, as societies develop.

In the past, he noted, “we were told we needed to work hard, because Singapore’s place in the world should not be taken for granted, and that we could lose it all if we gave it less than our very best”.

However, the slower economic growth Singapore sees today compared to the past could prompt a new generation of workers to feel like it is “less ‘worth it’ to keep pursuing economic growth”, as they do not enjoy the same extent of progress.

“Older cohorts saw palpable change in their living conditions for the sacrifices that they made. Younger cohorts are unlikely to see the same kind of progress, and are probably quickly realising it may be better to invest their time in pursuits that seem more meaningful to them,” said Dr Ang.

At the same time, experts also cautioned against the general tendency to assume that the desire for work-life balance is mainly confined to a younger generation of workers.

Instead of couching it as an issue that later-born cohorts are “spoilt and cannot take hard work anymore”, Dr Ang suggested that work-life balance could have become more sought after in recent times due to other factors at play.

Recent surveys have found a growing expectation among the Singapore workforce for greater work-life balance. — TODAY pic
Recent surveys have found a growing expectation among the Singapore workforce for greater work-life balance. — TODAY pic

For example, the growing number of dual-earner couples means that work-life balance may be harder to achieve because there is no longer one person in the family dedicated to doing the household tasks or providing childcare.

As an ageing society, Singaporeans are also living longer. At the same time, shrinking family sizes mean care responsibilities are shared among fewer children, and more time may need to be devoted to caregiving or coordinating care for an older parent, said Dr Ang.

These societal changes could have also prompted a greater cry for work-life balance over the years.

Agreeing, Mr Richard Bradshaw, the Asia chief executive officer of recruitment consultancy Ethos BeathChapman, said better work-life balance has grown to be a “common requirement” across different working demographics and ages today, and to some extent, may even be perceived as a form of “basic workers’ rights”.

This was something which resonated with 47-year-old father of three Edwin Ho.

The senior associate director at Finexis Advisory, who wants to be actively involved in helping his three teenage children to navigate their life stages, said this consideration was among the factors that motivated him to switch from working as an engineer in the Republic of Singapore Air Force to his current career in personal finance.

Being in the personal finance industry has allowed him the flexibility to work from home and also plan his own appointments with clients.

“Ideally we would all like to have work-life balance, but we have different needs at different times. To find balance between work and personal life, we have to constantly make the necessary adjustments to make it happen,” Mr Ho said.

Likewise, Ms Samantha Ong, 36, told TODAY that her approach towards work is to work harder while she is young, so she would be able to retire earlier.

“When I had children, I shifted my priorities. I need to work hard for my family — providing financial security yet at the same time spending quality time with the children when they are young,” said Ms Ong

The marketing campaign manager at technology firm Telstra International has two young children aged two and four years old.

“It requires a delicate balance, smart planning and often a good support system,” she added.

“You have to accept that there is no ‘perfect’ work-life balance — it’s more important to strive for a realistic schedule instead of a perfect one. Some days, I might focus more on work, while on other days I spend more time and energy on hobbies like working out or being with loved ones.”

Ms Samantha Ong’s approach towards work is to work harder while she is young, so she would be able to retire earlier. — TODAY pic
Ms Samantha Ong’s approach towards work is to work harder while she is young, so she would be able to retire earlier. — TODAY pic

Is work-life balance too much to ask for?

With more people yearning for better work-life balance, the million-dollar question is whether, from employers’ point of view, it is too much to ask for.

While they understand the desire for better work-life balance and integration, some employers, especially those in the services industries, told TODAY that it is difficult to accede to employees’ requests, given the nature of their role and industry.

Generational gaps may also play a part in influencing the success of flexible work arrangements.

Mr Jianhan Qiu, principal for strategy and change in Asia at strategy, design, and construction firm Unispace Singapore, said that younger Gen Zers may be more accustomed to operating virtually compared to their older colleagues.

“This generational gap influences managerial approaches to hybrid meetings and mentorship which might contradict flexible work arrangements. Managers who favour face-to-face interactions may inadvertently pressure remote employees to be in the office more to avoid missing out on career development opportunities.”

Additionally, some roles and industries may be better suited to flexible work that could afford its employees better work-life balance, simply due to their nature of work.

Mr Kenji Naito, group chief executive officer at recruitment agency Reeracoen, said that sectors such as technology, or creative and professional services, tend to demonstrate greater openness to flexible work.

Conversely, industries with stringent operational requirements or client-facing roles may find it more challenging to implement such arrangements, he said.

Mr Salim Radiman, a business development manager and assistant general manager at a cleaning services company, said: “It is quite difficult for us to have that flexible work environment, because...we have to provide manpower to ensure that daily operations are being deployed according to the (client’s) contract.”

He added that Singaporeans tend to shun work in the cleaning as well as food industries because of its long hours and the need to work on public holidays and weekends.

“That’s why in my kind of industry, we have to hire Chinese workers, Malaysian workers, Myanmar workers, and Filipino workers. For them, they come to Singapore and their mindset is to work and earn a living for their family, so their commitment is different from the locals.”

Asked about these concerns of employers who may rethink hiring local staff and instead look overseas for recruitment, particularly given the difference in costs, Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang said last month that the competitiveness of Singapore’s workforce was key.

Local workers must have in-demand skills and be able to meet business productivity needs. They must also remain competitive in their work ethic or “the softer things, like being reliable, trusted”, which are attributes of the local workforce that businesses appreciate, she said.

Speaking in Parliament earlier this month, she also reiterated that remote work and outsourcing are already global trends regardless of Singapore’s guidelines.

“Even if foreigners are not working in Singapore... they will still be competing with us when working in companies overseas.”

Instead, it was more important for local workers to continually upskill and stay productive to compete for jobs not just in Singapore, but globally, she added.

Does this mean, however, that Singapore workers need to work hard over long hours to retain their competitive edge?

Not so, said the experts interviewed, who pointed out that competitiveness is multi-faceted, and prioritising work-life balance does not have to come at the expense of a workforce’s attractiveness or economic progress.

In 2022, the BBC reported that Norway and Denmark had work weeks that were shorter than 40 hours, yet were respectively the second- and seventh-most productive countries in the world then.

For one thing, what workers may lose out on in absolute hours put into work can be made up for in other ways, such as increased productivity during the actual time they are at their jobs.

With more people yearning for better work-life balance, the million-dollar question is whether, from employers’ point of view, it is too much to ask for. — TODAY pic
With more people yearning for better work-life balance, the million-dollar question is whether, from employers’ point of view, it is too much to ask for. — TODAY pic

Associate Professor Nicholas Sim, from the Singapore University of Social Sciences’ (SUSS) School of Business, said: “While there are trade-offs between competitiveness and work-life balance, it is not necessarily true that work-life balance must be sacrificed to increase competitiveness, particularly if this refers to an increase in productivity.”

He added that the assumption that one must work longer hours to be more competitive is often “unfounded”.

Highlighting findings from studies which surveyed respondents of various occupations and skill levels, Assoc Prof Sim said that working beyond a certain threshold of hours may in fact increase errors and decrease one’s productivity.

“Moreover, many studies have also consistently shown that poorer employee well-being is associated with increased disengagement and intentions to quit.

“A hyper-competitive corporate culture may also foster toxic work environments that ultimately undermines productivity.”

Agreeing, Dr Kelvin Seah, an economist at NUS, said that what is more important is to assess not only the quantity, but also the quality of time spent at work.

To this end, having greater work-life balance may actually improve one’s output.

“If employees feel happier and less stressed at work, they may be able to think of better ideas, be more efficient and engaged at work, and perform better at their jobs,” he added.

Agreeing, Ms Cassandra Loh, vice-president of partnerships and solutions at mental health start-up Intellect, said she believes companies should instead be more “results-oriented”.

She also does not believe that having work-life balance is necessarily in conflict with also working hard.

“I always believe that if one has ownership and takes pride in their work, whatever the work might be, work will still get done (within) deadlines.”

Work-life balance or flexibility just helps the worker schedule their day better, she added.

For Ms Loh, who is a mother to two young children aged one-and-a-half and five years old, this could look like trying to be home by 7pm to spend time with her kids, before returning to focus on her work at 10pm after they go to sleep.

Other employees TODAY spoke to also disagree with the notion that those who yearn for work-life balance are less hungry for success.

Mr Ho from Finexis Advisory said that a person who devotes equal amounts of time to work and personal life can be more successful, productive and fulfilling, than a person who only works hard and spends huge amounts of time at work while sacrificing other matters in life, like spending time with family and friends or travelling.

“To me, working hard and being successful does not mean simply attaining some professional or work-related goals. It means putting in quality effort to learn from experiences every day...and using less time to achieve one’s targets and goals.

“I think we first must define (our) purpose for working hard and what success is, so that we can work towards that goal and in doing so, learn to find a balance between work and personal life.”

Mr Edwin Ho feels that working hard and being successful does not mean simply attaining some professional or work-related goals. — TODAY pic
Mr Edwin Ho feels that working hard and being successful does not mean simply attaining some professional or work-related goals. — TODAY pic

Agreeing, Mr Jivan Tulsani, the head of marketing at blockchain firm TZ APAC, said that a growing demand for work-life balance does not reflect a lack of hunger from employees.

“It’s more of a shift in how ambitious professionals define success. It’s important to understand the concept of purpose, which is an aggregate of components such as talent, passion, skills, occupation, charity and service,” he said.

“Professionals are able to satisfy some of these components in their jobs, but are also willing to make time for other priorities outside of work to fulfil their purposes.”

Mr Tulsani has observed that newer generations of workers are “very intentional about their passions”.

Some employers who recognise the need to afford their employees greater work-life harmony say that they have such employees who are high achievers.

Mr Winthrop Wong, co-founder and pharmacist at e-pharmacy Glovida-Rx, said this is the case of some of its medical sales staff.

“We set them qualitative and quantitative goals on a yearly and monthly basis and if they are able to achieve these targets, we basically allow them to schedule their days in what is most productive to them.”

Experts interviewed by TODAY also pointed out that offering greater work-life balance and flexible work arrangements could even attract additional groups of workers — who are otherwise unable to contribute to the workforce if they had to adhere strictly to traditional work settings and hours — into the market.

Dr Ang from NTU said: “We tend to focus on the people who are currently working, and act as if they are trying to skive off by asking for more work-life balance.

“What we probably miss, are the people for whom a better work-life balance will allow (them) to work, for those whom it will allow to work longer or more sustainably (such as older persons, or those with health conditions), and so on.

“Much depends on whether employers are creative enough to tap such people by adapting their own processes or (possibly outmoded) ways of thinking.”

Striking a balance

Amid a push for better work-life balance and flexible work arrangements even as Singapore strives to maintain its competitive edge, both employers and employees will have their work cut out for them in navigating this new landscape.

For a prospective employee, expressing a desire for greater work-life balance by way of flexible work arrangements — especially at the job interview stage — may work against the candidate, if the employer does not have such work arrangements in place, said Mr Suhaimi of SSA Group.

At the same time, employers who do not offer such flexible work arrangements may also find themselves at a disadvantage in attracting and retaining talent, especially as workers’ expectations for work-life balance continue to evolve, he said.

This is also a point that Manpower Minister Tan See Leng has made in explaining the rationale of flexible work arrangements.

With corporate information on pay, benefits, and culture becoming more transparent and widely available across prospective employers and employees, Mr Qiu from Unispace Singapore said that companies will need to adapt to attract and retain talent.

Over time, this would leave the organisations’ approach towards work-life balance and flexible work to be the main differentiator.

While employers interviewed by TODAY acknowledged the benefits greater work-life balance had on employee engagement, talent attraction and retention, they also raised concerns.

One challenge flagged by several employers includes the difficulty of monitoring employees’ productivity and performance when they work remotely or are operating on flexible schedules.

Other concerns include potential impacts on business operations and stakeholder relationships, ensuring fair team workload distribution, and any associated costs, said Ms Khew Shu Ping, deputy managing director of public relations agency Tate Anzur.

Asked what an optimal balance to strike between work-life balance and an economy’s performance could look like in Singapore’s context, Dr Ang from NTU said this balance would differ for each person at each of life.

“This means we will need to create room for people to strike these different balances without feeling like they cannot survive.”

To do this necessitates a mindset shift from being a “market society” — driven by economic logic on who is worthy of respect and what is worth striving for — to that of a “market economy”, where the economy is simply a tool for exchange and society decides what it values and how to thus make the market work for it, said Dr Ang.

Ultimately, the transition towards fully embracing greater work-life balance — premised on a mindset of results-oriented work — will require cultural and mindset shifts, which would take time, said experts.

Amid a push for better work-life balance and flexible work arrangements even as Singapore strives to maintain its competitive edge, both employers and employees will have their work cut out for them in navigating this new landscape. — TODAY pic
Amid a push for better work-life balance and flexible work arrangements even as Singapore strives to maintain its competitive edge, both employers and employees will have their work cut out for them in navigating this new landscape. — TODAY pic

Citing studies on how culture tends to be highly persistent, Assoc Prof Sim from SUSS said that it is very unlikely for there to be an organic shift towards a culture of measuring performance by output, unless there are some external macroeconomic or policy shocks, similar to Covid-19.

Notwithstanding that, employers told TODAY that building a culture of mutual trust and open communication with their employees would be key to a smooth transition and moving the needle.

For one thing, employees are encouraged to clearly define their needs and the specific type of flexible work arrangement they’re seeking, said Ms Khew from Tate Anzur.

“As part of their application, they can submit a well-defined plan outlining how their flexible work arrangement will be implemented,” she added.

This plan should address how their workload will be covered during their absence, how they will stay connected and maintain proactive communication, and their commitment to continually deliver high-quality work.

These go a long way in showing that employees can manage the responsibility of flexi-work arrangements, said Mr Danny Tan, managing director of public relations agency Grayling Singapore.

Other ways this is evident are in areas such as employees’ timeliness — as seen from their punctuality for work and in keeping to deadlines — and their overall performance at work.

“If they have performance issues, it is unlikely that they will be considered for flexi-work arrangements,” said Mr Tan.

The agency currently operates on a 4.5-day work week that is extended to all employees who have spent more than a year with the firm.

Agreeing, Mr Wong from Glovida-Rx said employers will be more likely to accede to requests for better work-life balance or flexi-work arrangements from workers with a good track record.

“We build a culture of trust over a period of time.”

Beyond building trust between employers and employees, Mr Wong said it is important to also foster a good working culture among employees themselves.

Offering select employees flexi-work options and better work-life balance takes “great communication” from the employer — in that the company’s management must be clear on the parameters not only with the employees involved, but also with their team about why the arrangements are in place.

Communicating clearly, and being open to questions, will thus help prevent any feelings of resentment between team members or concerns that there is some bias in an organisation, he added.

Still, these are all worthy adjustments to be made as employers and employees alike navigate what could be the next new normal.

Mr Tulsani of TZ APAC said: “The lines between work and personal life are not as clear as it was before: Professionals today view their occupation as an important piece of a jigsaw puzzle that embodies their purpose in life.

“It is one of the many priorities they devote their attention to, in addition to family, health, passion, service, charity, talent development and more.

“Putting their employees’ purposes at the forefront of policy making will (thus) be key to retaining and attracting the best people, which is the lifeblood of any organisation.” — TODAY