When the extension of the movement control order (MCO) to April 28 was announced, readers got in touch to ask how they can deal with blurred boundaries between home and work life.
Most people understand the necessity of the government’s measures that continue to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 outbreak. It’s imperative that we play our part to protect those at risk and to alleviate the burden on healthcare services and wonderful key workers.
As people have been encouraged to stay at home, many find themselves juggling a crisis they don’t understand with concerns for family and friends and thoughts about what will happen next. All of these emotional struggles are being navigated while coping with work and home demands under the same roof.
This week, one reader who got in touch forwarded a letter they had sent to The Star in 2019, lamenting the lack of boundaries between home and work life in Malaysia. According to a 2019 work-life index, published by tech company Kisi, Kuala Lumpur was found to have the worst work-life balance out of 40 major cities around the globe. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo were placed 32nd, 35th, and 39th on the list ahead of KL.
The debate over whether modern times can allow for such a thing as work-life balance continues to divide opinion. Leaving debate aside, what is undeniable is the effect that overworking has on people’s physical and mental health.
In June 2019, an article in The Star noted then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s observation that mental illnesses – which includes work-related stress – could cost the Malaysian economy RM105.47bil by 2030 if a holistic approach wasn’t found to address underlying causes.
With many people now working from home, the tendency to overwork is reinforced, along with dealing with the other demands and stresses mentioned earlier.
I remember my grandparents lamenting how, with a home telephone, “people can now call you at any time of the day without any notice”. This was in the 1980s. Now, we have email, smartphones, Skype and Zoom, FaceTime and Whats-App joining the age-old phone call – and these are all free to use. As a result, we are now reachable 24/7.
While employees might be told they’re not expected to work beyond contract hours, the reality is that many will be concerned if they clock-off on time and commit their free time to their personal life and leisure. Those with families, especially, might feel compelled to make themselves available in their free time, keeping in mind bonuses and promotions that might otherwise be overlooked for “less committed” team players.
But it is vital, especially now, for people to draw boundaries between their work and home lives. Working from home is no holiday – we’re in the midst of dealing with a global pandemic and all the challenges that brings. People need to switch off, unwind and recharge.
Every day without fail, we all recognise the importance of recharging our devices, because we know that they wouldn’t otherwise function. And yet, we don’t give themselves that same care!
As the research clearly implies, attitudes to work culture need to be reviewed, or organisations as well as employees will continue to suffer the consequences, which can be avoided with some thought and committed effort.
As for practical advice on what we can do to restore boundaries between work and home life, my colleague and emotions researcher Dr Eugene Tee offers this excellent advice, “Rest more, manage your media intake, and pay attention to the good news.
"Be protective of your free time and weekends. Learn to say ‘no’ and recognise it is OK to not feel 100% during a crisis. Your free time is not the time for productivity – especially if you are already working from home.
“This is pandemic, not a holiday – we need to recognise that there are heightened levels of stress and worry that people are experiencing. Our psychological reserves are being depleted by the fear and worry occupying our minds.
“Our priorities now are the survival and safety of our loved ones and ourselves – and we should not be ashamed to admit or commit to those concerns.”
If more leaders recognise the importance of people’s free time and allow them to enjoy it without expectation or demand, from our happiness and well-being to the nation’s economic health, everybody will benefit in the long run.
The work we all do is important – but our lives encompass so much more.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.