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The hard truths about work-life harmony

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Having learnt the need for a work-life balance the hard way, Muhamad Hamim Bin Abdul Rahim’s decided to make sustainable changes to his life. As the winner of the Work-Life Star Award 2014, he talks about applying his learning to the workplace. 

In a recent survey, I read that Singapore employees believe more flexible work arrangements will enable them to integrate their work and life outcomes better.

It is not surprising then that a whopping 87% of male and 84% of female respondents would be attracted to work for a company that supports them in managing their work and family commitments.

Are bosses implementing meaningful work-life initiatives for employees? Or is work-life a myth, as some writers on this topic have claimed? In reality, simple practices with the right attitude and motivation can enable employees to boost their personal lives while delivering quality performance at work.

What are your work-life needs?

In my years of implementing practical work-life programmes for my colleagues, I learnt that it can be as simple as starting a conversation about one another’s work-life needs.

After speaking to my peers, I realised that some of us shared similar concerns. We struggled with our ability to divide our time well. This had no bearing on whether we had elderly parents to chauffeur to medical appointments or toddlers to ferry to playgroups. Stress levels inevitably increase and it becomes a vicious cycle of self-blaming when we fail to keep to our promises at home or at work.

However, the motivation to achieve work-life harmony is not just to make the people around us happy. We are the ultimate beneficiary of an ideal balance. To care for our families and to excel at work, we first need to stay healthy.

I unfortunately learnt this the hard way. I was in my mid-30s and led a largely sedentary lifestyle. A healthy diet was the last thing on my mind. The price was a lifetime dependency on medication. I decided that I had to make better use of my time outside of work to change my lifestyle, and devote quality time to my wife and five children.

My experience also taught me that sometimes it takes just one person to start the ripple for work-life programmes going. The same demand-supply theory for any commodity applies – what are the requirements and how are they addressed?

The motivation to achieve work-life harmony is not just to make the people around us happy. We are the ultimate beneficiary of an ideal balance.

Wellness at the workplace

In my context within a school environment, I saw an opportunity to attain better work-life harmony. The question was how? I highly recommend that employers adopt a quick and easy, yet sustainable approach to help their employees achieve overall wellness.

Organising sports activities, like a game of bowling, addresses the physical and social aspects of health. Mental health is also boosted if the participant is new to the sport. This is because learning a new skill stimulates the mind and arrests any form of mental degradation.

Then comes the bigger challenge. With the new work-life programmes in place, how do we inspire our peers to participate? A carrot was handy in my case. I initiated an incentive programme to urge more of my colleagues to be a part of the work-life harmony movement. Points are accumulated and individuals receive a token of encouragement at the end of the year.

As soon as work-life harmony is set in motion, we heave a sigh of relief. Maybe give ourselves a pat on the back for starting something beneficial. But the journey does not end there.

What I found useful was to have channels for feedback. Listening to one another about how the programmes enabled us to cope better with our work-life challenges is important. Are we managing our stress levels at home and at work better?

For organisations that have the luxury of telecommuting or flexible hours, are these adequately utilised? On the other hand, are these affecting the staff’s performance at work? The evaluation process needs to be appropriately structured so that any course correction can be made swiftly.

In my situation, I designed an annual employee survey to identify relevant work-life initiatives. The feedback was then used to create a targeted work plan and determine budget allocation for the next batch of programmes.

I wish I could simply throw up a list of my workplace’s five most successful programmes so that more people can use them. However, my recommendations are not silver bullets.

I wish I could simply throw up a list of my workplace’s five most successful programmes so that more people can use them. However, my recommendations are not silver bullets. There is no cookie-cutter solution to create optimal work-life harmony.

Take staggered hours for instance. Apply that to my teaching environment and it could mean that students miss their first lesson of the day. Contrary to popular belief that teachers enjoy better work-life harmony because of short work days and long study vacations, we struggle with implementing work-life initiatives.

Similarly, every organisation faces unique constraints. At the end of the day, we need to understand real needs to tailor solutions.

Many of us may say that time is the biggest hindrance to achieving work-life harmony. My response to that is simple – everyone has 24 hours a day. While it takes discipline and dedication, pursuing work-life integration is achievable through simple principles.

Having experienced poor health myself, the consequences of bad work-life integration are real. We owe it to ourselves to find what motivates us. I hope this compels employers and employees to pursue a healthier lifestyle and efficient work practices to create a lasting and positive work-life environment.

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