For many years here in Australia, I’ve juggled working a day job, chasing a writing career and making time for things on the personal and home front. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got too many things work and play-wise to do.
Finding a work-life balance is arguably about juggling needs and wants. Finding a work-life balance often means organising time for things you want to do, and have to do whether you like it or not because it may impact the former and vice-versa – and trying to discover that ever elusive feeling called satisfaction all round.
In Asian cultures, there seems to be a strong focus on working to make a living. It’s not uncommon to hear of longer working hours in the corporate world in Asia compared to the Western world. In 2016, UK-based B2B marketplace Expert Market looked at 71 city hubs around the world: those in the 10 lowest work-life balance cities (Dubai, Bangkok, Hong Kong) work over 2,000 hours per year in the office, whereas those in the top 10 cities which are all European cities work around 1,600 hours per year.
Similarly, not-for-profit organisation Catalyst surveyed 1,834 multinational female and male employees across South-East Asia and found 64% of them stressed the importance of furthering fledging careers. Commonly among Asian cultures, working hard to attain job security and earning one’s own stripes – by showing up and doing the work – are markers of professional achievement, pride and status.
Doing things now is my motto. If it’s possible, I’ll get things done right now, ASAP, way ahead before deadlines at work – even if I don’t like what my boss gave me to do. To me, this is a good use of time: show up to work, finish things now, move on to something else at work or go home.
In Western cultures there seems to be more of a focus on looking after one’s health and well-being on the job. While sick leave entitlement is the norm across the world, it’s those in the Western world who are more likely to use it. A study by PwC shows Australians take the most ‘sickies’ a year at 10 days (some using these days for non-legitimate reasons), with those in the UK taking an average of 9.1 sick days and in Asia 2.2 days.
Then there is also personal, maternity and compassionate kinds of leave (varying across the world), and many of us take them when we have to. No matter who we are, sometimes we work because we have and want to. But sometimes we simply can’t because other parts of life calls with stronger conviction.
The Western world seems more enthusiastic about taking time off work to enjoy doing what they want. Office workers in New York, Sydney, Moscow and Helsinki take more than 25 days of vacation days on average a year, while 15 vacation days is more common in Jakarta, Taipei, China and Bangkok.
Notably, how much annual leave one gets to take at a stretch depends on individual job requirements and whether it’s peak period in the industry one works in. Some of us might work multiple jobs or do shift work, for instance work in a café by day and club by night – which might mean keeping both jobs to make ends meet may be more important than taking an extended vacation.
For around three years after finishing university, I worked contract and casual jobs. These kinds of jobs didn’t come with leave entitlements but once I finished up a contract, there was time before the next one. One could call this my ‘gap years’, which is usually defined as taking a break in between studies; it’s something many Australians like to do. In between jobs, I drafted my first book and got this blog going. Living life this way, I felt like my own boss – much to the excitement of my friends who thought it cool to be a blogger with a bit of a following, and much to the disappointment of my Chinese-Malaysian parents who kept telling me over and over to get a ‘proper job’ to set myself up.
How hard one decides to work or play depends on what they want out of life. For instance, today many employees in Singapore value work-life balance more: millennials here want to travel and spend weekends doing non-work activities. On the other hand, these days more and more Australians work overtime and more prefer payment over time in lieu – finding it harder to achieve a work-life balance.
Most of the time we need reasons to live ‘life’ if we were to get away from the fair bit of hours we put in in the office. We might work certain hours or days so we can care for someone. Or study to better our skills on the job or elsewhere. Or take part in cultural occasions. What might be ‘work’ to someone might not be ‘work’ to others, and the same thing can be said about ‘life’.
On the other hand, some of us might prefer work and play to be distinct: show up to a routine day job we might have half a heart for, turn up to practice passion elsewhere after hours. Two different worlds, two different worlds to learn from whether we like them or not.
The notion of ‘balance’ is subjective. The Oxford Dictionary defines balance as a ‘situation where elements are in harmonious proportion, and presence of mental and emotional stability’. However, nothing is perfect and so ‘balance’ is arguably an elusive illusion, and so is satisfaction too as we go after the shadow of perfection. Entrepreneur William Vanderbloemen suggests our life happens in seasons, in work-life rhythms. Some moments will be better than others. Almost anything that we do work or play-wise might turn out how we never imagined. As author Alain de Botton said:
‘There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.’
At different times of our lives, we’ll have different priorities, different definitions of success and so different wants and needs. Working full-time I get to afford to eat and pay the bills and learn how the world works and how people think. Writing, which is something I never fail to look forward to, I get to reflect on what I’ve come across and express how I truly feel and figure out how to make things and most importantly other people feel better.
There’s meaning in everything you do if you commit to it, work or play, like it or not.Do you juggle work and play well?
Thank you so much for writing this post. It is helpful. I share your early ambition to be a radio host! I like the hopeful quote ” ‘What might be ‘work’ to someone might not be ‘work’ to others, and the same thing can be said about ‘life’. ” but I see there are two ways of looking at it.. you can do a proper job and then look forward to doing your writing or you can use your passion to do work you love and embrace the struggle that comes with it. and maybe hop between the both.
I will always remember my time in community radio fondly… and I am guessing you will too There’s just something very intimate and personal about working in radio, which I might share more of at some point.
I agree. Maybe we can hop between both work and passion, or do one or the other. The choice is ours and either way, often we can’t have our cake and eat it. It isn’t always a bad thing and in the end, we will probably learn to appreciate what we have.
Work-life balance, however elusive it might sound, has become my priority since the last few years. As you said, in Asian culture those who work hard and long hours are often perceived to be better than those who leave the office on time. The problem is, as I can attest based on my experience, many people spend their time at work inefficiently. They have unnecessarily long meetings, work in the way that often takes too much time, and so on. And in the past I often found myself trapped in such situations.
I came across some articles that helped me to be more brave to speak up my mind, about how one’s contribution at work shouldn’t be measured by how long he/she works, but how efficient he/she finishes all the tasks given to him/her. Sometimes I wonder why not many people take the Nordic model as an example. I read that in Denmark people are trusted to do a good job so they can leave the office on time. Those who stay longer for no reason are often frowned upon for everyone else has friends, family, pets, or hobbies to look forward to being engaged with after work.
Working inefficiency is something that happens, definitely agree with you on that one. At many workplaces I’ve been, I’ve seen many a long meeting…and you wonder if it’s all talk, no action quite often.
The Nordic model of work sounds like an interesting one. Work and play can compliment each other, so it’s important to make time for both.
Well said and I couldn’t agree more on your points. Somehow Asians seem to need to work themselves like a bull, its like if the work is not hard and suffering then it is not work and the salary is not hard earned money.
You don’t know how much I love this comment, my friend. Thank you so much. It was so well thought out and phrased You are so right in saying that work-life balance is a controversial topic, and very happy for you that you are happy with how much you put in with work and personal life. ‘Work fuels my passions outside of it. ‘ You summed it up so well, so much that I ever did! Each part our life usually fuels the other parts. At times life is give and take, and some moments will challenge us much more.
Agreed that circumstances personal preferences and also presonality impacts how we work and play, how we organise and spend our time. But definitely agree health and happiness is the most important. Maybe simplicity really is the key.
Mabel, you have brilliantly brought out the difference between work-life balance in eastern and western cultures. While there is a thin line between work and other commitments of life, how we handle both aspects depends on our temperament and attitude to life. Often imbalance tests our capabilities and it is quite challenging to keep the balance especially with little children and goals of success. We may be having different priorities but family demands cannot be ignored.
Personality and attitude does play a big part in how we go about managing both work and play, and also if we feel content – sometimes you can say it all depends on perspective.