Work-life balance: Only for developed countries?

The following article was published in the CSR Digest, 13 May 2010.
The National Union of Bank Employee (NUBE) has launched a campaign to increase Malaysia’s current policy of 60 days maternity leave to for 90 days maternity leave in the public and private sectors. Human resource (HR) managers have rejected the initiative citing higher costs, negative effects for productivity and inconvenience; in their view, 60 days is sufficient for recovery and for looking for alternative plans for childcare. When interviewed, some HR managers have added that extended maternity leave might be fine for developed countries, but not for Malaysia.
Is work-life balance only an issue for developed countries? How can improved work-life balance benefit businesses – in both developing and developed countries?
Let me draw on Norway’s experience, since I am familiar with it having once been the Director for the Centre for Gender Equality in Norway. Today, Norway has one of the world’s highest levels of female participation – over 70 % – in the labour force. Thirty years ago, less than half of all Norwegian women were employed. Norwegian women’s greater participation in the labour force is a major factor in pushing Norway’s GDP per capita ranking from 9th place in 1980 to 2nd place today.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) data estimates that Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product, currently ranked at 51st place, is capable of growing by two to four per cent annually if women’s labour participation rate is to rise from 47 per cent to 70 per cent. How can Malaysian women also play a role as wealth creators in the nation?
From the Norwegian example, we can conclude that in order for this to happen, important social policy needs to be put in place and attitudes need to be prodded to change.
A major paradigm change in Norway was the acknowledgement of an obvious fact of biology in public social policy – that children have both a mother and a father. Therefore, what was once termed “maternity leave” is now called “parental leave”.
“Parental leave” in Norway today has two components; one (major part) which the parents divide among themselves as they choose fit and another which is earmarked for the father alone.  In general, the rule is 46 weeks with 100% pay or 56 weeks with 80% pay. Ten of the 46/56 weeks are earmarked for the father. If the father does not take “his” leave, the parents lose the weeks earmarked for the father.
When this policy was introduced in the early 1990s, only 2-3% of fathers went on ”paternity leave”. Today, over 90% of Norwegian fathers do so. By making it easier to make socially unconventional choices, social policy can “help” to change attitudes.
Improved work-life balance is not only something which will solve some of the problems faced by women in the workforce; it is also an effective social policy instrument to create wealth for the nation.
In addition, improved work-life balance can also be the single competitive advantage one business might have over another. One thing the HR managers who rejected NUBE’s campaign seem to have in common is their narrow perspectives and general short-sightedness.
In the competition for top talent, HR managers need to understand what young talents are looking for in a workplace. Not only is the younger generation less likely to stay in one workplace for very long, they are also more picky about whom they want to work for.  Working mothers and mature workers are examples of untapped talent groups HR managers might need to start attracting sooner or later given the nation’s skill shortages. Improved work-life balance, not only regarding parental leave following  childbirth but also eldercare support and other flexible work arrangements, can contribute towards retaining an company’s current top employees and towards making the company a more attractive workplace for prospective candidates. Improved work-life balance is not a luxurious HR policy only rich, developed countries can afford. It is a necessary feature of businesses – in both developing and developed countries – which invest in their workforce, and in their own future.

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