When it comes to work-life balance, Asian and Western cultures usually have different ways of discovering it.
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. According to Safework SA, work life balance is ‘the relationship between your work and the commitments in the rest of your life, and how they impact on one another’. 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.
There’s no definitive means to measure the ideal work-life balance. Each of us has different priorities. At different points in our lives we’ll have different priorities. Each of us will live out the notion of work-life balance differently at different times in different parts of the world among different cultures.
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.
The more hours one works on the job to earn a living, the more one might be labelled a workaholic. Growing up in Singapore, I watched my dad come home late from the office most nights and work Saturdays – it’s all part of the job, he always said. Maybe this work-to-the-bone-autopilot-mode is ingrained in my genes. At one point I worked 11 hour days so as to get the job done on time, emailing my team at midnight what I finished, and functioning at work the next day without coffee. Most jobs I’ve worked, most days I’ve clocked up more than the standard working hours.
Consequently, some Asians typically lean towards upholding a hardworking ethic and getting things done – perhaps getting things done as soon as possible too. Conversely, Westerners are commonly regarded as more relaxed, just like how many Australians are regarded as laid-back. Today in parts of modern Spain, Italy and Mexico, siestas or naps in the middle of work are still common, which is usually unheard of in Asian cities. This is not to say other ethnic groups don’t care about working hard; to be hired for any job, you have to do that job to stay hired. However, you can work hard and work smart, and still get the job done. That is, you can work your way to the top, or play your way to the top. Or both.
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 (in most corporate full-time jobs) 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. That said, roughly 61% of Americans work on vacation and 81% high paying finance professionals in Singapore prefer staying contactable while on leave. Perhaps more of us are workaholics more than we like to admit.
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.
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Not everyone fits the stereotype. 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’.
However the line between work and play can be a fine one, especially when it comes to doing something you love for a living. Work can be play and play can be work. For some this might be the ideal life: work at something you love, feel productive with a sense of purpose and feel good about yourself. We could be a full-time freelancer working odd hours making a living from stimulating passion projects. Or an entrepreneur who built their booming business passionately from the ground up. Or we could work in a corporate office job that we simply love and don’t mind taking work home after hours.
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.
When I was a kid and teen, I dreamt of becoming a full-time radio presenter and writer, working as a creative for a living. As I got older and worked in different industries, I realised non-creative jobs are the more stable kinds of jobs that help afford certain luxuries which are also very much needs. And I find a lot of writing inspiration from working 9-5. In other words, my Chinese-Malaysian parents were right. But they were not entirely right about what makes me entirely happy.
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 are days when it’s a bad day at work but then I’ll come home to an inspiring writing night. Other nights, there’ll be disappointingly no writing done but the next day work would be amazing. Sometimes both worlds would be disappointing at the same time, other times both flying on a high. Each world so different, each one reminding me of the good and bad in the other, each world keeping me grounded. And so I’ll keep on keeping on with both worlds – work to work, work to play, play to play, and play to work.
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?