Why I hate the term “work-life balance”

Resharing a Twitter thread.

  1. Yesterday, I tweeted that it annoys me when young lawyers talk about wanting work-life balance (WLB). I thought I’d explain why in a thread. I’ll bookmark this to share when people ask me about WLB. This’ll seem repetitive to the people I’ve explained this to over the years.
  2. IMO, the term “work-life balance” is damaging. Firstly, different people use WLB to mean different things. The term has so many interpretations that it ends up not meaning anything. This includes the other re-framings such as “work-life integration/harmony etc”.
  3. The term WLB is damaging because it forces people to separate “work” and “life”. “Work-life integration” sounds better, but still separates work and life. IMO everything we do is just “life” — it’s the way we live, and it’s how we fill our days. This naturally includes work.
  4. “Work-life balance” creates a false dichotomy. Adopting this artificial construct of “work me” and “life me” sets a lot of people up for disappointment and frustration. This is where concepts like “TGIF” and “Monday blues” come up.
  5. TGIF means “Yay, it’s the weekend and I can switch to ‘fun me’ or ‘chill me’ or ‘happy me'”. Monday blues comes up because “Argh, it’s Monday and I now have to switch back to ‘serious me’ or ‘work me’ or ‘miserable me'”.
  6. This separation creates a narrative that “work” is diametrically opposed to life. Or that work is the enemy of life. This to me is a barrier to improvement and mastery, because it makes work seem like a bad thing.
  7. If you find yourself hating the work you do, check whether the mindset you’ve adopted towards work is to blame. Also, audit your circle of influence. If you surround yourself with whingers who think the world is always to blame, you’ll think so too.
  8. I also tweeted that mentioning WLB in an application/interview is a red flag. When someone says that their reason (or one of their reasons) for applying to the firm is because it provides work-life balance, it’s a warning sign — what do they mean?
  9. There are some good intentions behind wanting WLB (autonomy, control, independence, meaning, reasonable workload etc). There are also poor ones (wanting to clock off at 6pm everyday, not check emails outside the office).
  10. I won’t go into the reasons in point 8 in detail. I’ve had many conversations with fresh grads and YLs over the years, and there are as many of those with poor intentions as there are those with good ones.
  11. I’m interested to have these conversations, but only because I’ve seen how beginning to talk about WLB can lead to discussions of more interesting topics. A chat about WLB usually brings to the surface threads we can pull on.
  12. Digging a little deeper, we usually find that we can talk about things like “how do I become a good lawyer”, or “what does success mean to you?”, or “how do we find fulfillment in our jobs”.
  13. Going back to WLB, I don’t think the beginning of your career is the time to be overly-focused on WLB unless you really give it proper thought, and have the right mindset. Otherwise it can position work as a bad thing, and be a damaging concept.
  14. WLB really only comes up when people are dissatisfied with their current situation. Happy people don’t dwell on WLB. And when people say they want WLB, it means they want to work less. You don’t often find someone wanting to work more.
  15. While putting in the hours and hard miles early in your career is unavoidable, it saddens me when people in their 30s/40s/50s still feel that constantly working long hours and weekends is inevitable.
  16. It’s sad when people who have been in their careers for 5++ years feel burnt out, and say they “wish” they could live another way, choose another path, but have “no choice”. We always have a choice.
  17. Obviously there isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. But, as with many situations in life where we feel that there’s no choice, asking “why?” or “why not?” often helps.
  18. When you’ve been in your career for 10 years yet feel you have “no choice” it often means you’ve trapped yourself in a prison of your own making. The “why not” for working less or changing jobs is usually tied to your own definition of success or wealth.
  19. If we don’t properly think about it, we will never be successful enough, or earn enough money. Society ensures we always want more. There are all sorts of financial and psychological elements— comparison, keeping up with the Joneses, lifestyle creep.
  20. Everything is iterative. You can design a life that works for you, unapologetically. You don’t have to conform with what society thinks a “lawyer” or “legal practice” should be like.
  21. You can do whatever you choose, but you have to want to. And “wanting to” means being willing to put in the hard work to make it happen. Being willing to experiment, make mistakes, learn, and put up with the inevitable brickbats or critics.
  22. I’m not saying spending long hours in the office is bad for everyone. There are as many worldviews and life philosophies as there are humans on this planet. Open yourself up to as many ideas as possible, unpack and ruminate, and then make the decisions that best suit you.
  23. And of course, constantly experiment and correct course where necessary. You’re not the same person you were 10 years ago, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to hold the same views or be committed to the same career path and ways of working.
  24. This thread has veered a bit from work-life balance (see, I told you discussing WLB always leads to lots of other threads to pull on). In short, it’s a bad thing to overly focus on at the beginning of your career. Focus on learning as much as possible instead.
  25. And this commitment to learning and putting in the hours isn’t unique to the legal profession. Look at the best entrepreneurs, craftsmen/women of any kind — anyone who is great at what they do. The alternative is mediocrity.
  26. But as your career progresses, keep thinking about your why. Your reason for doing things. Otherwise, you’ll end up just being pushed along by the current, and end up doing what society tells you, and think you have “no other choice”. Enjoy the ride.

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Case Update: Court of Appeal sets out key legal principles for retrenchments

In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

Retrenchment exercises have been a regular occurrence in the Malaysian industrial relations landscape for many years now. This looks set to continue deep into 2021, as employers respond to the challenges created by the on-going pandemic. Despite this prevalence, many employers often mishandle retrenchment exercises, with significant consequences.

The recent Court of Appeal (“the COA”) case of Ng Chang Seng v. Technip Geoproduction (M) Sdn Bhd & Anor [2021] 1 CLJ 365 usefully sets out some key legal and practical principles that all employers should consider when embarking on a retrenchment exercise. Among others, the judgment in the Ng Chang Seng case covered the following issues:

  1. What issues does the court consider when deciding whether the employer has proved a genuine redundancy?
  2. How can an employer justify not using Last-In First-Out (“LIFO”) for employee selection?
  3. Does an employer always have to retrench all foreign employees before retrenching Malaysian employees?
  4. Does the rehiring of some retrenched employees on a contract basis mean that there was no genuine redundancy?
  5. How much weight does the court give to non-compliance with the Code of Conduct for Industrial Harmony (“the Code of Conduct”)?

You can find all our previous posts on retrenchments by clicking on the tag here. Some of my earlier articles have been very popular and should prove useful:

  1. Retrenchments in Malaysia — some recent cases (29 May 2020).
  2. Case Update: Insufficient justification and improper handling of Voluntary Separation Scheme may give rise to unfair dismissal (20 March 2019).
  3. What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees (22 January 2016).

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Case Update: Unfair dismissal due to poor handling of mutual separation agreement

In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in constant pressure on employers across almost all industries. There have been widespread measures to manage the financial fallout from the global effects of the pandemic, including salary reductions, employee redesignations, retrenchments, and separation schemes.

It has become a common practice for employers to use Mutual Separation Agreements (MSAs) — which also go by various other names such as “settlement agreements”, “separation agreements”, and “termination agreements” — to bypass or shortcut the usual termination processes. Many employers, as well as employees, view MSAs as a “cleaner” way of ending the employment relationship — instead of feeling like s/he has been “sacked”, the employee can be made to feel that the exit is on his/her terms, and employers prefer the certainty of clearly documented and mutually-agreed terms.

However, it is not uncommon for MSA exits to be improperly handled, resulting in a successful unfair/constructive dismissal claim by an employee, and a high financial cost to the employer. Some of my earlier articles would also be relevant for readers interested in this topic:

  1. Retrenchments in Malaysia — some recent cases (29 May 2020).
  2. Case Update: Insufficient justification and improper handling of Voluntary Separation Scheme may give rise to unfair dismissal (20 March 2019).
  3. Case Update: Can an employee bring an unfair dismissal claim after accepting a severance payment? (16 November 2017).
  4. What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees (22 January 2016).
  5. Handling employee dismissals properly under Malaysian law (13 January 2016).

In this article, we will review the Industrial Court case of Thanasegaran C Munusamy v. Vale Malaysia Minerals Sdn Bhd (Award No. 1647 of 2020), where the employee, Thanasegaran (the Employee) had signed an MSA, but then lodged an unfair dismissal claim against the employer, Vale Malaysia (the Company).

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Top 5 Articles on The Malaysian Lawyer in 2020

We end the year by looking back at the most-read articles on The Malaysian Lawyer in the year 2020. Thank you to the readers for all the support and for dropping by this site of ours.

Do consider dropping your email address in the box on the right to subscribe for email updates on our posts. We now have close to 1,500 email subscribers.

Featured below are our five most-read articles in 2020. Perhaps consistent with the challenging times of 2020, four out of the five articles deal with some form of closing down or retrenchment   Continue reading

Retrenchments in Malaysia — some recent cases

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on jobs around the world. Almost every country has experienced an economic downturn, and as businesses struggle to steady the ship and stay afloat, many employers have been doing their best to retain their employees where possible. It has been a very busy 2020 for employment lawyers and HR professionals.

Unfortunately, for employers in many industries, COVID-19 has negatively affected their revenues too significantly, and cutting jobs has become the only solution to keep the businesses going. This has also been the case in Malaysia, where the Movement Control Order crippled many businesses, and the government has been unable to provide meaningful assistance to employers. For example, the aid provided under the Prihatin wage subsidy program is very low and short-term compared to other countries, and comes with conditions attached that make it impractical for many employers.

As a result, there have already been many retrenchments carried out in Malaysia, with even more to come. Indicative of the times, in the past couple of months, we have suddenly seen a significant amount of traffic on an old article I published here in January 2016 — “What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees”.

But retrenchments can be tricky. Over the years I’ve seen many employers make mistakes that result in unfair dismissal claims, a messy and costly court process, and sometimes very big court awards to be paid to former employees. Often, these mistakes are made even by employers who have done their research on the law, and sometimes even by those who have obtained legal advice (which ultimately turned out to be incomplete or flawed).

Knowing how to properly carry out a retrenchment exercise — and knowing what practical mistakes and missteps to avoid — comes with experience. It also helps greatly to analyse how other businesses have implemented retrenchments (both properly and improperly), and so in this article I set out very brief summaries of a selection of retrenchment-related decisions by the Industrial Court in the past year.

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Case Update: Insufficient justification and improper handling of Voluntary Separation Scheme may give rise to unfair dismissal

In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

Retrenchments are an ever-present issue in the Malaysian industrial relations landscape. The Malaysian Employers Federation has forecast that 30,000 employees will be laid-off this year. The proper handling of retrenchments is a constant challenge for employers, and disputes often arise. The Ministry of Human Resources recently announced that terminations due to retrenchment were the most common reason for unfair dismissal cases received by the Industrial Relations Department over the past 10 years, accounting for 30% of all cases.

Many employers make the mistake of assuming that implementing a retrenchment exercise is a straightforward way of getting rid of unwanted employees, or downsizing the workforce to cut costs. I’ve written about some of the legal issues related to retrenchment in two earlier articles:

  1. In “What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees”, I summarised the key Malaysian legal principles in relation to retrenchments. Essentially, it is the prerogative of the management to decide on the reorganisation of its business, and the courts will not intervene unless it is shown that the employer’s decision was not in good faith.
  2. In an earlier article in this Case Update series — “Case Update: Relevant issues when an employer uses financial difficulties as a reason for retrenchment” — I wrote about a case where the Industrial Court held that an employer relying on financial difficulties to justify retrenchment had to prove it was experiencing financial difficulties, and to show the financial savings it made through the retrenchment.

In the recent case of Suseela Devi Balakrishnan v. Inti International College Kuala Lumpur Sdn Bhd (Award No. 343 of 2019), the Industrial Court considered a scenario where the employment relationship ended based on a voluntary separation scheme (“VSS”) arising from a redundancy scenario, and the employee subsequently claimed that she was dismissed without just cause and excuse.

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