WITH employers moving towards accepting remote work and flexible hours since the movement control order was implemented, now is a good time to capitalise on this changing mindset shift to push the government and companies to introduce more supportive policies for working parents.
According to Tan Mei Ling, who is World Bank Country Operations Officer and Gender Country Focal Point, increased child care demand is cited as the main reason why many mothers report being more stressed when working from home (WFH). This is primarily due to schools closing numerous times, forcing children to learn from home. Coupled with new forms of digital learning, it is no doubt that parents now have more on their plates.
And due to patriarchal cultures, this burden is overwhelmingly felt by mothers. One way the government and companies can ease the burden is by making childcare affordable and accessible.
It is a win-win situation for businesses when they encourage flexible forms of work and provide childcare benefits to both men and women, as companies that provide this benefit can retain their talent pool, have happier and more productive staff.
“More parents will have the comfort and peace of mind to have dual incomes if they are assured that their children are safe and cared for in a conducive learning and play environment. Employers are also more likely to retain workers, if men and women can work on a consistent and regular basis, ” says Tan, who herself is a doting mother to a six-year old.
It is important to recognise that childcare should cover all children, ranging from ages 0 to 17, and not just the early years, she stresses.
Due to the impact of the pandemic, government policies must be inclusive and pro-poor, especially for the B40 urban poor, she adds.
“Policies and adequate budget allocation for the set-up and operational maintenance of child care facilities in poor urban areas such as PPR flats, is crucial. Additionally, enhancing existing public structures such as libraries and community centers are potential solutions which are cost effective and quick to implement.”
Although flexible forms of work have become standard practice for government agencies and have been piloted by government-linked companies and private companies, they continue to be the exception rather than the norm especially among SMEs and companies where systems are not digitally-enabled yet.
Therefore, it would be important to have low-cost solutions, policies and incentives to encourage SMEs to digitalise their businesses, says Tan.
Better environments for working parents
On a positive note, Tan points out that there are multi-prong approaches and policies to capitalise on the growing recognition of WFH for employees.
For the private sectors, companies need to create a parent-friendly work environment, as modern families require shared responsibility and both mothers and fathers to have hands-on parenting.
Government bodies and regulators can also play a vital role by introducing paid paternity leave or paid parental leave of substantial duration, such as seven days, says Tan. While the civil service gets seven days’ paternity leave as part of Human Resources benefits, there is no law mandating this and many in the private sector do not have any paternity leave.
“This will send a strong message on shared responsibility to fathers and mothers, and it will also recognize the father’s growing role of taking care of babies and children in modern families, ” she adds.
“Malaysia scores poorly in the global Women, Business and Law Index and have a score of zero (0) under the category Parenthood. There is no legally mandated paternity leave or parental leave, dismissal of pregnant women is not prohibited and the number of paid maternity leave is below international norms, ” says Tan.
Moving forward, Malaysia should continue with planned amendments of the Employment Act as well as the Employment (Part-time Employees) Regulations, to encourage and protect staff with flexible work arrangements against potential discrimination.
“The government can also promote the tax incentives provided in the Budget Speeches which encourage building owners and operators, and companies to provide childcare facilities, ” says Tan.
Because of Malaysian culture that passes on most care work to women and mothers, this causes some mothers who work from home to suffer from stress and burnout, says Dr Sharifah Syahirah Syed Sheikh, a senior lecturer at Kolej Universiti Poly-Tech MARA (KUPTM) who specialises in gender and governance.
“Work from home is definitely one of the best options, not just for mothers but for fathers, ” says Sharifah, who believes in empowering fathers to be more involved at home and in the nurturing of their children.
“House chores like cooking is not only for mothers but it is also for fathers and children when they reach a certain age. These roles at homes are not fixed and can change from time to time as we move towards an advanced country, and adopt better working cultures, ” she says.
Changing employer mindset
It is high time for employers to work as outcome-based managers, and this change in worldview would serve to not only improve work output but also create better work-life balance for mothers.
“Focus should be on the outcome of the task instead of having employers micromanage every aspect of work.
“Of course, for certain jobs like frontliners there may still need to be a clock-in, clock-out system, but in many other jobs, employers can focus on the outcomes rather than the process, ” says Shahirah.
For Shahirah, having a supportive work culture, not just policies, that accommodates working parents is very important.
“Good or great managers and bosses will be sensitive enough to empower parents to be able to work, and at the same time not sacrifice their responsibilities towards their children, ” she says.
“Companies now know how to manage and evaluate performances of employees who work from home.
“If we go back to the previous nine to five working situation, it is going to be a waste of nearly two years of training, and the facilities and systems that have been developed and invested in, ” says Shahirah, who adds that there are also advantages for employers in terms of saving electricity and rent when their staff work from home.
“If employers are pragmatic enough with their usage of digitalisation and in their way of thinking, they will use current work from home policies as an opportunity instead of looking at it as a hindrance to productivity.”