‘How’s your work life balance’ is the question I get asked at every annual appraisal. It’s not a bad thing, for it signals the institution’s acknowledgment of academics’ wellbeing, but I question if it’s enough. Namely, is it enough if the institution only pays lip service but the actual practice of ensuring everyone who works for said institution understand this concept of work life balance? That weekends, public holidays and annual leave mean personal time away from the office; that we are not obligated to explain our non-presence to colleagues, especially when there is an out-of-office message detailing when to expect (email) response.
I’ve always used the analogy of working in a hospital to explain the boundaries I draw with work on weekends and my time off. That is, if a medical doctor does not respond to a phone call or an email when they’re on call, it may affect a patient’s health. As in, it could potentially be a life or death situation. But I’m an academic, not a medical doctor. There is no concept of ‘on call’ in universities; me not responding to emails or text messages will not affect anyone’s health, life or death. In short, it can always wait till the next working day or when someone is officially back in the office.
I set boundaries very early on when I started the full time job, over an incident whereby, while on holiday in Japan, my phone kept ringing because work refused to respect the fact that I was in a different country and insisted I respond over the most trivial matter. It was a long weekend, and I had taken two extra days off so as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t too much to ask. It affected the quality of my holiday and violated this concept of work life balance which work had insisted we had in the first place. Where is the work life balance in a scenario like this?
So when I returned to work, I set strict boundaries. I stopped myself from responding to work emails after 5:30 pm on weekdays, I don’t check work emails on weekends. I make it clear to students as well. I am diligent about setting out of office messages. While I’d allow myself to check and respond to work emails every few days while on leave, I’ve since become even more strict with boundaries when I’m on leave since the pandemic.
I’m the type that loved working from home, but there is a difference between choosing to work from home, and having to do so due to a raging pandemic with all international borders closed for two years. This meant even if we take leave off work, we’re still in the same space, and working from home has blurred the boundaries of home and work spaces. In 2021, Channel News Asia had an opinion piece on how annual leave seems lest restful without any travel. Indeed in the past two years with the pandemic, I found myself taking less time off; only doing so to fulfil criteria of retaining my leave days without burning them. And even when I do take a few days or a week off in between semesters of remote teaching, the casual email and WhatsApp messages that suggest a thing or two that needed to be done doesn’t stop. So in effect, there is no such thing as a work life balance, and thus, effectively, there is no rest or mental break from the office.
With international borders opening in Malaysia and neighbouring countries such as Singapore lately, I’ve taken the opportunity to make use of multiple long weekends to take a short break to Singapore. It was both exciting and anxiety-inducing, at the idea of travelling in a new normal, a world that has emerged not quite post-pandemic, but getting slightly used to the idea of living with it. I set my out of office email indicating I’ll be away, and given it was a short 4-day break, one over the weekend, I’ve indicated clearly I will not be responding to emails until I’m back in office. After all, what is 2 working days out of 2 years of the pandemic where this personal/professional boundaries are consistently blurred and violated.
But of course, as luck would have it, a complete break is not in the cards for me.
An email arrived on the Friday I was away asking for volunteers for the university’s Open Day. The next day (on Saturday, a non-working day), I received a WhatsApp message asking if I’d like to volunteer for the same events — the ultimate reason why I always refuse to give colleagues my phone number. On Sunday, I received a forwarded email of the original one sent on Friday, again asking if I’d volunteer for the events. They come from the same person. I’ve highlighted the word ‘volunteer’ here because the dictionary defined it as ‘freely offering to do something’, and my out of office message was on (I even sent an email to myself to double check!). Plus, given that the email was about volunteering time and labour, I would have thought common sense would have suggested my non-response meant my unavailability. If it was mandatory to reply, why phrase it as voluntary?
On Tuesday, I was back in town, but have arranged a meeting at a local cafe to meet friends back from the UK to plan for a research-related podcast. The colleague who’ve been consistently emailing and texting the entire weekend walked in, and then proceeded to walk up to me after a while. I said hello, and they then proceeded to ask if I’ve been on leave (which, funnily enough was what my out of office message very clearly indicated). Without even asking if I was still on leave or if it was convenient to talk, said colleague proceeded to demand an answer for their email about volunteering for the Open Day events. Given the email clearly said “volunteer”, I indicated I can only make one of the dates and only for a few hours and not the whole day like they have indicated, which apparently was not the answer my colleague wanted to hear because they continued standing there demanding answers (which I’ve already given). After a while, they then demanded to know why I was so stressed. It was a good thing the friends I was supposed to meet showed up at the point, but it still amazed me to this day I had to ask the colleague to leave.
When I recall this incident to other colleagues, the behaviour is excused away by the pandemic having made everyone lose their social skills. Has it though?
It seemed too easy to just make the pandemic the scapegoat for bad behaviours when those exchanges have been downright rude. When all this while I have been lectured about how Asian culture is polite in comparison to white and British culture, but my exchanges, especially when it concerns my personal time off, has often been downright confrontational. After all, isn’t it polite to ask if it’s convenient to talk about work when you see a colleague outside of the office? What happens if a colleague has taken time off to deal with personal matters? What happens if they’re waiting for a meeting to start? But the face to face exchanges I had with my colleague at the cafe that day proved the entitlement colleagues felt over my personal time, and their self-importance that I had not responded to an email about volunteering my time and labour. It’s not the pandemic that has made people lose their social skills, it’s just a blatant lack of basic courtesy and respect for others. It’s the inability to stand outside of the self and see things from a different perspective — which, ironically, is very individualistic.
I was very angry at myself for not handling the matter better, for not telling the colleague immediately that this is my time off and I would like to be left alone, and to please respect my privacy. But it made me remember a blog post a dear friend and colleague wrote on this precise topic, and I’m going to make it a point to write better out of office emails and to communicate more clearly what I expect when I’m on leave. I’ll just need to prepare for more ironic lectures about politeness in Asian cultures.