Balancing work and life on a tightrope

Work-life harmony is currently a national priority.

The Singapore Tripartite Forum deems employees able to combine work responsibilities and personal-family needs likely to be more engaged and productive at work. Businesses are being encouraged to provide for work-life balance among employees.

And the policy emphasis on work-life harmony is supported by the MoM Work-Life Grant. This grant, previously known as Work-Life Works! or WoW! (no, not World of Warcraft), supports EAP counselling and hotline services as part of Employee Support Schemes. The 2005 Work Life Harmony Report  provides findings and recommendations for employers on using work-life strategies to optimise business performance, while Tripartite Guidelines on Best Work-Life Practices lists mental wellness talks/workshops and confidential professional counselling among employee support schemes for enhancing work productivity. But what’s like on the ground?

According to a research report by Azzone and colleagues in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 90% of Fortune 500 companies implemented EAP services for their employees in 2002, while 40% of US employees in the private sector had access to EAP services in subsequent years (Merrick, Volpe-Vartanian, Horgan, & McCann, 2007; U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

In Singapore, comprehensive EAPs are a relatively new development, even though corporate wellness programmes have been in place since the 1980s. As many as 26% of private companies in Singapore with at least 50 employees had a comprehensive workplace health promotion programme in 1998 (Chew, Cheah, & Koh, 2002). The findings published in the Singapore Medical Journal were based on a survey which had a 49.5% response rate from 4,479 companies. A 2006 National Workplace Health Promotion Survey, cited in a recent book edited by Kirsten and Karch (2012), Global Perspectives in Workplace Health Promotion, puts this number at 58.7%.

With the recent mushrooming of local EAP providers, hopefully it won’t be too long before the untangling of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and employee assistance payments can begin.

Working towards a healthy workplace

The World Health Organisation (WHO) supports a healthy workplace to prevent non-communicable diseases and reduce the burden of mental ill health – health priorities highlighted by the United Nations.

Advocating a comprehensive model to promote healthy behaviours among workers in their job and lifestyle, and minimize their exposure to psychosocial and physical risks, WHO recommends re-allocating work to reduce workloads and respecting work-family balance  for mental wellness, and implementing safety measures in the physical environment.

The responsibility of achieving a healthy workplace also falls on the organization. This means providing employees with personal health resources. Fitness facilities and programmes, healthy food choices, smoking cessation programme support, and employee assistance counselling are among the list of activities recommended by WHO.

The work of promoting healthy workplaces sits in the purview of the Health Promotion Board (HPB). Their Workplace Health Promotion Programme is guided by Sept 2000 recommendations from the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Health Promotion. As well as easy access to HR resources for implementing corporate wellness programmes, organizations can apply to HPB for funding from the Workplace Health Promotion Grant.

The rationale for promoting a healthy workplace is not limited to ethical-legal considerations: Healthy employees are key to staff retention and sustainability. In other words, organizations have a corporate social responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for employees, but it also makes good business sense.