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Behind the numbers

Work-life balance must be seen in practical, local context (Aziz Acharki - Unsplash)

By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Haslina Muhamad

Work-life balance is a widely debated topic across health and wellness, human resources management, and public policy sectors. Achieving this balance is believed to enhance productivity, happiness, and satisfaction among workers. Recently, Malaysian workers were taken aback by a report from Remote, a human resources solutions company, on the Work-Life Balance Index. According to the 2023 Global Life-Work Balance Index, Malaysia ranks as the second worst country for work-life balance among the 60 nations with the highest GDP.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Haslina Muhamad

Given the current socioeconomic instability not only in Malaysia but globally, are these findings truly surprising, or somewhat expected? To answer this, let’s first understand how the Global Life-Work Balance Index 2023 was calculated. In simple terms, the overall score is based on factors such as minimum wage, sick leave, maternity leave, healthcare accessibility, public happiness, average working hours, and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. And each country is given a score on how well it is doing in each of these factors.

One could argue that while most factors evaluated align with Malaysia’s cultural norms, some are less applicable. For instance, Malaysia’s conservative stance on LGBTQ+ issues, lacking legal protections and facing social stigma and discrimination, contrasts with countries like New Zealand, known for inclusive policies and protections. Such disparities likely contribute to Malaysia’s low ranking on the Global Life-Work Balance Index.

Within Malaysia, ongoing discussions among the workforce focus on critical issues like minimum wage, leave policies, healthcare access, public happiness, and working hours. Compared to developed nations, Malaysia’s policies in these areas may benefit from further review and enhancement. Data from the World Economic Forum indicates that Malaysia’s annual working hours have remained largely unchanged since the 1970s. Additionally, Kuala Lumpur ranks as the third most overworked city globally, with many attributing long hours to low wages. Historically, maternity leave in Malaysia was only 60 days, far less than the 26 weeks offered in New Zealand. These factors underscore why Malaysia ranks poorly for work-life balance.

In response to these various challenges, Malaysia has proactively implemented policies and initiatives aimed at improving work-life balance, recognizing evolving workforce needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, many Malaysian companies have embraced flexible work arrangements, including remote and hybrid models, to foster a more harmonious balance between employees’ professional responsibilities and personal lives. Additionally, effective 2023 under the Employment Act 1955, the maximum weekly working hours have been reduced from 48 to 45, with a daily limit of 8 hours. Malaysia has also set a minimum wage of RM1,500 per month for employers with five or more employees and extended maternity leave to 98 consecutive days, up from 60 days previously.

Regarding healthcare, Malaysia operates a universal healthcare system that provides access to both public and private healthcare services, scoring 70.2 on the Health Care Index. In comparison, New Zealand’s healthcare system scores slightly lower at 68.6. While Malaysia offers cost-effective healthcare services, New Zealand provides higher quality and more comprehensive healthcare options. Furthermore, in the 2023 World Happiness Index, Malaysia improved its ranking to 55th place, a significant improvement from previous years, despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainties. These efforts reflect Malaysia’s commitment to enhancing overall happiness and life satisfaction among its residents.

While it’s clear that Malaysia faces significant work-life balance challenges, it’s equally important to approach any global rankings and ratings with a clear and open mind. These metrics provide valuable insights but should be viewed as guides rather than absolute measures, considering that some evaluated factors may not even fully resonate with our local context.

What truly matters is our collective definition of work-life balance, shaped by our unique cultural norms and demographic realities. By fostering a dialogue within our communities and workplaces, we can better understand and prioritize the aspects of life that contribute to a fulfilling balance. Equally crucial is the establishment of robust support systems in workplaces, ensuring that every individual feels heard and supported. These systems not only address personal concerns but also contribute to a healthier, more productive workforce across all sectors.

As we manoeuvre the complexities of work and life in Malaysia, let us strive towards a shared understanding of balance and resilience, empowering each other to thrive in our professional and personal pursuits to create the future Malaysia that we all dreamed of.

The author is an associate professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya, and may be reached at haslina_m@um.edu.my

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