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The right work-life balance
Published on Friday, 18 Nov 2011
Fern Ngai
Mats Schäfer

One sticky area in the realm of Hong Kong employment is the glaring need for employers to better accommodate the needs of parents and caregivers. The city has long scored low marks for its work-life balance, and this, according to many, is a major contributing factor. Standard Chartered Bank understands this.

"One area in which we've made good progress in the last several years is in being a more family-friendly employer," says Fern Ngai, head of the bank's corporate affairs in Hong Kong. "The bank is committed to supporting parents and caregivers across our markets. With a large part of our workforce being parents, and with a growing ageing population in many of our key markets like Hong Kong, the bank recognises the need to provide an inclusive and supportive working environment for all, including those with family responsibilities."

Coping with the duty of caring for family members, in addition to the usual demands of work and day-to-day life, can add stress and affect employees' health. And it may also result in lost productivity or contribute to attrition.

Mindful of this, Ngai says: "Providing an inclusive working environment and ensuring that we support good work-life balance for parents and caregivers are essential elements. As a result, we strive to create more flexibility and adapt to people's working styles in a way that will ultimately benefit both the individual and the bank. This includes providing flexible working arrangements, such as part-time work and working from home."

Standard Chartered even has "mother's rooms" at its main offices. "These are a great help to staff who are new mothers who have just returned to work after maternity leave, and are still breastfeeding," Ngai says.

The cost of ignoring the need for work-life balance can be considerable. Mats Schäfer, a German banker and a single parent, found himself at the sharp end of one of Hong Kong's less family-friendly financial institutions.

"They treated single parenthood like it was some kind of disorder. I was even denied a few hours off to take my son to the hospital. After a few months, I handed in my notice. Unfortunately, it was at a time when nobody was hiring. But I went from being a stranger to my own son because of my crazy working hours, to becoming 'Daddy' again. How could I regret that?" he says.

Still, Schäfer is sanguine. "Hong Kong needs to raise its game in my view. And my view now is from an island in the Gulf of Siam, where I'm home-schooling my son and trading online to pay the rent on our spacious bamboo bungalow," he says. "Thailand really respects family life. Hong Kong does, too - I know. But there are very cynical players out there. Hong Kong's a hard-boiled city. And I like both my eggs and my life soft-boiled!"

In short, if you're a parent or caregiver, you should investigate your prospective employer's D&I approach. And if they ask you what D&I is (the industry lingo for diversity and inclusion policies), then you might consider moving on to the next prospective employer. Nevertheless, the picture for family-work-life balance seems to be improving in Hong Kong.


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