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Commentary: Work-life balance, the elusive unicorn?

Work-life balance is a term tossed around like the proverbial unicorn everyone is looking for but few can find. It doesn’t have to be this way, says a career adviser at NUS’ Centre for Future-ready Graduates.

Commentary: Work-life balance, the elusive unicorn?

How can we achieve work-life balance? (File photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: A few months into my stint as a career adviser, I coached a bright-eyed, zealous student who was keen on a junior associate position at a consulting company.

We went through the usual gamut of topics: Application procedures, resume templates, even a mock interview with the requisite question-and-answer routine.

At the end of the session, I reminded her that as an employee there, she may have to work late to meet project deadlines, or even work on the go while travelling overseas to meet clients.

Genuinely shocked, she asked, “You mean I won’t get any work-life balance?”

“What do you understand by that term?” I responded. Looking defeated, she asked: “Can we look at other industries instead … like banking?”

Truth be told, “work-life balance” is a term tossed around like the proverbial unicorn that everyone is looking for but very few can find.

A recent Randstad Employer Brand Research 2017 Survey reveals that Singapore employees ranked good work-life balance as their top priority, while employers ranked it their eighth (being financially healthy was their first).

The fact is most job applicants often expect a strict division of time and space between work and non-work. However, mobile phones and immediate email alerts have rendered these notions meaningless in the modern era.

It is also ironic that many students and young adults who are technologically savvy millennials are the same ones who often hold on to the archaic, punch-card ideal of work-life balance.

What should one do to inch closer to finding this unicorn?


We all play different roles at different times of the day. Today, a common scenario is for most employees is to be distracted in the office by personal matters as a parent, child or spouse, only to go back to their homes and be distracted by work matters.

To counter this, stick to the role of an employee fully in the office. Resist the urge to check your social media profiles and mindlessly surf the internet, and curb time-wasting activities such as meandering meetings.

Similarly, assume the role of being a loved one or friend outside of the office, and resist thinking or talking about work.

You will find that spending uninterrupted quality time with people who matter to you not only helps you to destress from work, but also enhances your overall happiness. It can also be an unlikely source of ideas and inspiration.


In tertiary institutions like NUS, students’ schedules are planned to a tee. When they make that transition into the workplace, they often find themselves at a loss at planning their time around competing tasks. The same goes for young adults when they switch to a new employer or industry.

Often, common symptoms indicating a lack of work-life balance are confusion or burn-out. In this case, everything is urgent and needs to be done immediately.

To counter this, draw up a list of tasks and targets at the beginning of each day and prioritise what to do first.

You will need to understand the difference between what is urgent (like replying to random emails) and what is important (such as providing that management report). The difference between the two will be determined by your management’s expectations and the organisational culture.

Does your organisation issue directives top-down and expect regular reports and updates along the way, or does it let ideas and concepts develop organically in a more laissez faire manner with everyone’s inputs included? As an employee, you will need to find that out.

If you feel exhausted and unmotivated all the time, you're likely experiencing burnout and should try to switch up the way you work. (Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay)


Communication which is clear and early will go a long way for you as an employee. Most organisations today have flexible working arrangements to cater to different needs of diverse employees.

Need to leave slightly earlier every Tuesday to take care of parents or children or attend night classes? Let your boss know and offer to make it up sometime else.

Have a medical appointment before a major presentation the following morning? Let your colleagues or team mates know early so they can help pick up your slack.

It helps to communicate your intentions early so that no one is caught by surprise. Overall, this also enhances empathy for everyone in the office.


We run regular workshops at the Centre for Future-ready Graduates. During these workshops, students are encouraged to put away all possible distractions, including mobile devices. This is done so they can focus their attention on learning.

The pervasiveness of technology today makes this difficult, especially for young adults who operate under the stress of the “fear of losing out” from what is happening at work.

To counter this, learn how to take some time off occasionally to unplug. By not reacting to every single update or alert, you will build more focus and resilience in the long run. Unplugging also ensures that you draw a mental boundary between work and your personal life.

In conclusion, work-life balance is not an elusive unicorn – it is all about self-management. The reality of the employment market is that job applicants are expected to formulate their own work-life balance equation within the framework of what needs to be done.

For a young adult, asking about it may imply a sense of entitlement which usually works against you. For a mid-career professional, asking about the same usually raises questions about your ability to self-manage.

At the end of the day, it is a state of mind you have to create and manage by yourself. And by following the points set out here, you can move closer to achieving work-life balance.

Ryan Ang heads the career advisory team for professional services and research at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Future-ready Graduates.

This is the second commentary in Channel NewsAsia’s series with the NUS Centre for Future-ready Graduates on achieving career success. 

Read the first commentary on why networking is not a dirty word but a necessary skill here.

Source: CNA/sl