Letter to Editor: Work-Life Balance: A Lost Art

There is this unspoken assumption that the forty-hour workweek has been the enduring norm for centuries. We imagine medieval peasants leading monotonous lives, toiling tirelessly from
sunrise to sunset.

However, if this is indeed the norm, then why are 65% of Malaysian employees ready to sacrifice higher pay and career advancement in exchange for an improved work-life balance?

Work-life balance has become a sought-after commodity that the society can adequately supply. In light of the rising demand, it is imperative that we go beyond increasing mental health solutions, to examine the underlying factors that have led to such a widespread craving for work-life balance, as something fundamental appears to be amiss.

A journey through the history and etymology of work would provide us valuable insights on the
socio-economic factors that have shaped the way we work and live now. During the Stone Age, hunter-gatherers worked for an average of 3 hours per day. In the 16 th and 17 th centuries, absenteeism was commonly tolerated, especially on the first day of the workweek, which eventually earned the moniker “Saint Monday”.

Work during these time periods primarily served the function of survival, with no distinct separation between one’s professional life and personal or family life. Work was more informal and casual.
Then came industrial capitalism and the popularisation of mechanical clock during the early
industrial revolution period.

Time became equated with money, the employer-employee dynamic evolved into one that resembled that of master and slave, and workers were reduced to mere raw material or commodities. Rules surrounding workplace productivity reigned supreme. And work began to occupy a disproportionately large portion of the average worker’s day, becoming a concept foreign to and distinct from “life.”

In the 19 th century, workers began fighting back for a shorter workweek, known as the Shorter
Hours Movement, which came to a halt during the Great Depression. “Full-time employment”,
“productivity”, “growth” re-established themselves as the virtues, and “leisure” and “unemployment” naturally filled the position of vices. This shift not only crushed the previous efforts to right the wrongs of industrial capitalism, but also created a fertile breeding ground for capitalistic values to prosper. The focus on productivity and growth has since expanded its influence and firmly embedded itself in the societal norms that define modern-day work life.

On average, Malaysians work 15 hours more than their contracted hours each week, according to
The Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace Survey by AIA. For most, this is to “pay off” the burdensome debts of capitalism, including rising cost of living, wealth inequality, and socioeconomic disparities. But many also willingly subject themselves to the self-optimisation of performance even when they have already achieved a sufficient level of success, as a residual effect of capitalism. Even leisure has been commodified and turned into another form of productivity, sometimes becoming just another item on the to-do list, rather than a true respite from work-related stress.

As we have seen so far, work has evolved from an informal endeavour to an unrelenting quest
for productivity and achievement. However, it is not clear that the aspirations of workers have
undergone equally radical changes.

While there are ambitious workers who genuinely champion the principles of capitalism – workaholism and endless productivity, the steep rise in demand for work-life balance suggests that deep down, many simply crave a more modest lifestyle, where their fundamental needs are met.

The rising population experiencing burnout serves as a warning sign, signalling the necessity for
a return to a more balanced and holistic approach to work and leisure—a lifestyle reminiscent of
that of pre-industrial societies.

What we need are not superficial band-aids to burnout like no-meeting Fridays, hybrid and remote work arrangements, and additional days off, but rather genuine solutions to enable workers to support their livelihood while enjoying the freedom to pursue leisure and activities meaningful to themselves. This is how things have been and should be.

As a start, workers should be given alternative, more flexible work arrangements to full-time
employment such as job sharing, flex-time, compressed workweeks, or even the option to
exchange salary with time-offs.

The government should also advocate for the elimination of hierarchical or authoritarian workplace practices that, regrettably, still persist in Malaysian society. These industrial time gimmicks that are no longer relevant include clock-in, clock-out systems, extensive work surveillance, overly rigid dress codes, non-compete clauses and unpaid overtime.

And as burnout workers, it is prudent not to restrict ourselves to a rigid interpretation of work-
life balance, such as the definition that quantifies work-life balance solely as “the amount of time
you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and
doing things you enjoy”.

It is perfectly fine to alternate the pace of our workweek, oscillating between periods of intensity
and leisure. In fact, it is advisable to welcome leisure and bouts of boredom into our lives more
frequently to facilitate self-discovery, creative and intellectual development, and more authentic
work. We should keep in mind that we are not mere automatons designed exclusively for
ceaseless productivity.

A great place to start embracing a more balanced lifestyle is at the Live Love Labour Festival
2023, themed the Art of Bersantai, a festival aimed at inspiring burnt out Malaysians to slow
down and rediscover the joy of leisure. If you are up for the challenge, you can also participate in
the Space Out competition at the festival, where you will experience the transformative power of
inactivity. Admission to the festival is free of charge.

The message of this article is not about advocating for a complete regression to our ancestors’
lifestyle, but rather a poignant reminder of who we are as human beings—rational and social
animals who need time for contemplative reflection and fostering meaningful connections with

Chew Zhun Yee
Co-Founder and Managing Director at Malaysian Philosophy Society