Misplaced beliefs in achieving work-life balance

  • Business
  • Saturday, 06 Jun 2015

AS I write this column, my thoughts go out to a former colleague who has suffered from a stroke. A diligent financial journalist who picked up the nose for news in corporate developments when he was hardly 18 year of age, he had worked his way to a senior position in a publication even before he was 40 years old.

That is quite an achievement. Unfortunately the fortunes of health were not shinning on him. He will recover. But will take some time before he continues with his trek up the world of business journalism.

Business journalists do not do the hard-nose corporate work. They do not work out the nitty-gritty of a corporate structure.

But they spend hours going through circulars and annual reports to shareholders to sniff out clues on whether the company is doing the business right or otherwise.

It’s not as tedious a job as an investment banker. But not an easy task to master either because they look at different companies going through a varied phase of its economic life everyday. The task works up the brains quite a bit.

Like most other jobs, spending 10 or 12 hours a day for five days in a week is normal for a business journalist. The good ones are always able to detect new trends affecting corporate earnings ahead of the curve. The best ones complete the job with news articles that are easy to read for the ordinary investors.

Spending long hours

But it comes with a price – spending long hours in and outside the office. To be ahead of the curve, business journalists generally spend time at dinners and drinks sessions with their “contacts”.

The hours are flexible but demanding. It is common for anybody in a position of responsibility in the corporate world. Executives with deadlines and targets to meet always tend to work long hours and come under pressure.

Work never ends. Unfortunately that is something that many executives fail to realise until the bodies tell them so.

It is largely left to the employees to ensure that they map out their work-life balance. Employers generally don’t dictate what employees do after work hours.

There is no framework of one-size fits all for achieving work-life balance.

It varies. Employees’ obligations to their employer end with a financial reward. Activities outside the office that give balance to their lives, bring benefits far beyond what money can buy. And it is a necessity in the fast moving corporate world.

But, don’t be mistaken. While an employer must ensure the worker has enough time for family and other personal activities, it is the responsibility of the employee to ensure that productivity does not slack.

For instance, in the case of Malaysia Airlines, the new CEO Christoph Mueller disclosed that “over-time benefits” became an important component of the take home salary of employees to the extent the planes never leave the hangars on time.

This is because if the plane leaves the hangar on time, there is no over-time!

The concept of achieving work-life balance should not be abused or taken to the extreme. Even the French who are known to love holidays are having second thoughts about extending too much annual leave for employees.

Towards this end, there is an ongoing debate on whether the 30,000 employees of EDF, the French energy company that has its hands in various power plants, deserve their 10-week holiday per year.

A privilege

It is a privilege extended to them since 1999 due to a law passed by the then socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the 1990s.

The law states that French employees are limited to 35-hours a week work schedule. Because EDF workers are required to clock in 39.5 hours a week, they are given 23 more off days in addition to the 27 days of annual leave.

What a good life! Imagine 10-week break in a year in addition to the annual leave. In Malaysia, only teachers in government schools can match that record.

The socialist government’s rationale for the 35-hour a week work is to help create more jobs.

But it has over the years only created more grieve for employers and impacted productivity and competitiveness. It has breed complacency, allowed office politicking and created a group of workers who can afford to be less hard-working than the rest.

It is said that this had come about because those under EDF’s permanent employment have secured employment and with plenty of time in their hands. A large number without permanent contracts, work more than 35 hours a week without the 10-week holiday. So they don’t have time to think of office politics.

It’s not only the EDF that is trying to re-negotiate the terms of leave. The French government is also looking at changing the work hours of its employees numbering more than 70,000 serving hospitals.

The reform initiatives by EDF and the government has run into opposition – which is only to be expected in that country where civil liberties are strong. But eventually water will find its level.

If companies are not able to finance the long breaks of their employees, the financials will eventually give way and cost-cutting kicks in. Eventually the more expensive employees with extensive privileges and who are less productive will be shown the door.

Set aside time

The regular employee who puts in his dues without extensive holidays comes out a better person. The employee only needs to set aside the time to strike a balance in his or her life after work.

The employer is not obliged to do this.

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Business , shan , work-balance , life


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