Balancing work and personal life

The definition of corporate governance includes other stakeholder interests as a corollary to shareholders's interests.

The exact wording used in the Malaysian corporate governance definition speaks about having the ultimate objective of realising long-term shareholder value while taking into account the interests of other stakeholders. An important subset of these stakeholders are the employees.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Australia will soon introduce laws giving employees the right to ignore unreasonable calls and messages from their bosses outside of work hours without penalty, with potential fines for employers that breach the rule.

The "right to disconnect" is part of a raft of changes to industrial relations laws that it says would protect workers' rights and help restore work-life balance.

Similar laws giving employees the right to switch off their devices are already in place in France, Spain, and other countries in the European Union. The provision stops employees from working unpaid overtime through a right to disconnect from unreasonable contact outside of hours.

"What we are simply saying is that someone who isn't being paid 24 hours a day shouldn't be penalised if they're not online and available 24 hours a day," Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters.

Some politicians, employer groups, and corporate leaders warned that the right to disconnect provision was an overreach and would undermine the move towards flexible working and impact competitiveness.

After all, very few employees really spend all their work hours on work – it is accepted that they spend some working time addressing their personal matters.

The left-wing Greens leader, Adam Bandt, who supports the rule, said, "Australians work an average of six weeks of unpaid overtime each year. That time is yours. Not your boss'."

Work life balance is increasingly being sought by the newer generation of workers.

Traditionally, Asian workers tend towards work-life imbalance, sacrificing life for work – an approach not popular with their western peers in western society but popular with some of their employers. Responsible employers who see staff overworking are known to have insisted that the staff go back home.

In the era of constant connectivity, the question of whether employers should be able to contact employees after work hours has become a topic of considerable debate.

About half a century ago, many did not even have telephones in their homes and were not easily contactable by their employers. Then they had telephones at their homes. But now, they have handphones with them as a constant companion and an extension of themselves. Accessibility has increased accordingly.

Striking a balance between professional responsibilities and personal time is crucial for fostering a healthy work environment and ensuring the well-being of employees. There are ethical dimensions to be considered when debating employer contact after work hours. The idea is to determine a reasonable approach.

The ability to contact employees after work hours can facilitate seamless communication and collaboration, especially in a globalised and interconnected business landscape. In a world where business operations may span different time zones, having the flexibility to reach employees outside traditional working hours can be essential for addressing urgent issues, making time-sensitive decisions, and ensuring the smooth functioning of the organization. This adaptability may enhance productivity and responsiveness, ultimately contributing to the success of the business and themselves as employees.

A cyber security breach cannot wait for the luxury of starting work the next day. Relevant staff must be accessed immediately to try to address and contain the issue. Or, for that matter, any other disaster that would require a disaster recovery to be set in motion to ensure business continuity. Perhaps, accessibility of staff should be job-function related. Ultimately, the test may hinge on whether it is reasonable. And reasonableness can be subjective, depending on the employer's attitude towards work. What is reasonable to one employer may not be so to another.

However, constant accessibility also raises concerns about work-life balance and employee well-being. The blurring of boundaries between professional and personal lives can lead to burnout, stress, and a diminished quality of life for employees. The expectation of being available 24/7 can result in increased levels of anxiety and negatively impact mental health. Over time, this can lead to decreased job satisfaction and, in extreme cases, employee turnover. Striking a balance that respects employees; personal time is essential for maintaining a healthy and sustainable work environment.

One way to address these concerns is to establish clear communication policies within organisations. By defining expectations regarding after-hours contact and setting reasonable boundaries, employers can create a more transparent and respectful work culture. This involves specifying the circumstances under which contact is appropriate, such as emergencies or critical business needs, and encouraging open communication between employers and employees to discuss any concerns about the impact of after-hours contact on their well-being. In the Asian cultural context, employees will not communicate openly, and it is up to the employers to exercise good sense and to be discerning. The power distance is still real and prevailing, though reducing.

Furthermore, implementing technology tools that allow for better work-life integration can be beneficial. For instance, scheduling platforms, task management systems, and collaborative tools can help streamline communication during regular working hours, reducing the need for after-hours contact. This not only promotes a healthier work-life balance but also fosters a culture of efficiency and accountability during the designated workday.

Additionally, employers should recognise the importance of rest and recovery for their employees. Encouraging the use of vacation time and promoting a culture that values time away from work can contribute to improved morale and productivity when employees are on the job. Employers should lead by example, demonstrating respect for personal time and discouraging unnecessary after-hours communication unless absolutely necessary.

From a legal perspective, some countries have already taken steps to address this issue. Legislation in certain regions restricts the right of employers to contact employees outside of their designated working hours. While this approach may safeguard employees; personal time, it also raises questions about flexibility and adaptability in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

*The writer is a former chief executive officer of Minority Shareholders Watch Group and has over two decades of experience in the Malaysian capital market

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