THE recent Jobstreet.com survey findings that the majority of Malaysian employees work considerably long hours and, as a result, spend little quality family time and are unable to finish their annual leave entitlement, raise several important concerns.
In a recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) study, it was found that in industrialised countries, 22 per cent of the workforce surveyed worked more than 48 hours a week, an amount the ILO defines as excessive.
The corresponding estimate for developing countries was roughly twice that of industrialised countries -- about 45 per cent.
Among them, only Indonesia (51.2 per cent), Peru (50.9 per cent) and Thailand (46.7 per cent) were ahead of Malaysia (45 per cent, though other sources estimate it could be much higher).
Other industrialised Asian countries, where employees exceeded 48 hours a week, included the Republic of Korea (49.5 per cent) and Japan (39.3 per cent).
Of all countries surveyed, France has the shortest workweek, at 35 hours.
In the majority of countries today, the maximum workweek is 48 hours, including overtime, but there is provision for workers and employers to negotiate a longer schedule so long as the average number of hours worked per week does not exceed 48 over a given period.
A worker operating a songket loom. Companies sometimes overwork staff to meet production
targets. File pic
Interestingly, the first ever international labour standard adopted by the ILO, at the time of its founding in 1919, stipulated the eight-hour workday and the 48-hour workweek, mainly to redress the exploitation of workers who were made to work long hours without consideration for their safety and health, family life or advancement.
With time, the ILO advocated and established an even lower global standard of a 40-hour workweek, mainly so that workers could carry out productive work alongside meeting their family responsibilities and fulfilling other essential aspects of their lives.
In view of these long-established and internationally recognised standards, one might ask: In situations where employees work excessively long hours, are regulatory laws observed and enforced?
What motivates employees to work long hours? And, of course, what implications do such work have on productivity, safety and health and other aspects of one's family life?
The above ILO study found that working time laws and policies often have limited influence on actual working hours in many developing economies, especially in terms of maximum weekly hours, overtime payments, exceptions and exemptions and informal employment.
Many workers may be compelled to work longer hours in order to earn a living or maximise their income, especially in times when living costs and dependency burdens increase. This could also occur in a country where the culture recognises long working hours as a sign of diligence, conscientiousness and efficiency.
Or, excessive working time occurs where the government does not restrict working hours or does not effectively enforce the law.
In some work situations, tight timelines often mean that companies are left in a position where employees must work beyond the working hours stipulated by legislation to meet targets.
In all of these instances, most workers often don't have a choice as protecting their work and looking forward to advancement, unfortunately, depend to a great extent on falling in line with such demands and practices.
From my experience as a coach for management trainers in developed and developing countries, it needs to be pointed out that even in industrialised countries, where there has been a greater recognition of family-life requirements, the situation is fast changing.
Putting in extra hours, in many cases uncompensated, to carry out and accomplish unrealistic workloads or to cope with a wide range of workplace demands that exceed the normal working time is becoming more the rule rather than the exception.
In theory, one can disagree with all of these practices and even have the guts to tell that to one's boss, but the reality is otherwise.
Workers who fail to comply or, worse, react negatively to such demands could be denied advancement, be replaced or even lose their jobs. Also, increasingly, the limitation or prohibition on trade union action to protect and promote workers' rights is another factor that allows such practices to continue.
On the flip side, though, the ILO study found that in many instances, both in developed and developing countries, there were enlightened employers, especially in workplaces where effective social protection and social dialogue exist, who pay employees decent wages, provide them a path to advance, ensure a safe and conducive working environment and observe hours of work and essential overtime as stipulated under laws.
More importantly, where employers and employees look to the best interests of each other and have a cordial working relationship, it is associated with significantly higher productivity and performance, a better working environment, healthier workers and enhanced job satisfaction and worker morale.
One way of dealing with the issue of excessive working time is to introduce at the workplace what's called "work-life balance", a concept that came into vogue in the past three decades or so.
It implies that one is able to dedicate an equal portion of time to work and other life's pursuits and responsibilities.
However, it is even more realistic and pragmatic to institute "work-life effectiveness".
It suggests striving for a situation where work effectively fits with other aspects of one's life.
Work-life effectiveness at the workplace, to ensure individuals work smarter and live better, focus on adjusting work style.
Some measures include:
AVOIDING unduly and constantly long hours of work;
KEEPING extra working time as an exception, to a minimum and compensating such work;
REDUCING work-related stress;
ELIMINATING causes that lead to burnout;
MANAGING unduly high volume, or unnecessary, communications and meetings;
SMARTER use of technology;
SETTING clear work parameters and realistic work expectations;
IMPROVING time management;
DEVELOPING prioritisation skills;
BOOSTING optimism and morale;
DEPLOYING the most conducive environment and practices for teamwork and cooperation;
IMPROVING safety, health and wellness; and,
SUPPORTING the most rewarding, satisfying and fulfilling work-life commitments and responsibilities.
An effective work-life programme is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to keep employees encouraged, engaged and energised. Without it, the default is to the red zone of stress, burnout and habits that drain productivity and drive up health costs and absenteeism.
Rueben Dudley, Petaling Jaya, Selangor NST Opinion Letters-to-the-editor