Family first

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am


Many Hongkongers would agree that they often wish they could spend more time with their family. With the passage of the International Day of Families on Tuesday, it is a good time to ask: Have we done enough to ensure that our loved ones get the attention they deserve?

We all have the responsibility to care for our family. Our rapidly ageing population, the lack of comprehensive elderly care services and the increasing competition in the local education system mean that our parents and children demand more of our time than ever.

On top of demands at home, Hong Kong's workers face very long working hours, about 22per cent higher than the International Labour Organisation-recommended 40-hour work week, according to the non-governmental organisation Community Business.

In addition, there is a near absence of family-friendly work arrangements. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission's 2006 study, only 10 per cent of the respondent employers had in place formal family-friendly policies or guidelines.

Work-related stress affects child-raising. In a poll commissioned by this newspaper, about half of the respondents who had no children thought Hong Kong was not a good place to bring them up. The city's fertility rate is among the lowest in the world.

Prevailing gender stereotypes impose additional strains on work-family balance. Currently, most household responsibilities still fall on women. The 2011 census data suggests that women currently spend triple the average number of hours per day than men on unpaid household duties. Many are forced to choose between career and family, leading to a drain of female talent.

Yet work-family balance is not only a 'women's issue'. A study released by the commission last week indicates that men also struggle to balance work and family due to changing gender-role expectations. Though men still largely identify themselves as the breadwinner, they have increasing familial obligations. But due to stereotypes, they often lack institutional support at work to take on family duties and hesitate to ask for flexible work arrangements such as paternity leave for fear of being branded lazy.

So the road ahead is long. The commission advocates a number of measures.

First, family considerations should be integrated into employment policy planning. Such supportive measures can facilitate men and women to share in household chores.

Second, we must raise awareness of the ripple effect of work-family balance. Employees tend to feel more engaged, leading to better job performance, lower turnover, and improved productivity.

Work-family balance also leads to happier families. Research suggests that greater involvement from both parents in child-rearing leads to children who are healthier, perform better in school and are less likely to have behavioural issues. By building a supportive work culture, companies can become employers of choice.

'A happy family,' wrote the playwright George Bernard Shaw, 'is but an earlier heaven.' This piece of heaven is not out of reach, but we must work together to make it a reality.

Lam Woon-kwong is chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission