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Long road to work-life balance in Kuala Lumpur

Whether people are overworked due to the system, personal choice or a lack of competency, multi-pronged efforts will be needed to improve their quality of life, say observers.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
A woman crosses a pedestrian bridge after work in the Kuala Lumpur city centre.
A woman crosses a pedestrian bridge after work in the Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Kuala Lumpur, known throughout the world as the capital of Malaysia, is also recognised for another, less positive, reason: according to a survey by US technology firm Kisi, it was the third most overworked city in 2022, behind Hong Kong and Dubai which came in second and first respectively. 

This is not the first time it has made it into the top 10 most overworked cities list, either.

Last year, Kuala Lumpur came in eighth while in 2020 and 2019, it was ranked fourth. 

This year's survey took into account a number of recent developments including global inflation, the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The survey, which was carried out in 49 cities globally as well as 51 in the US, was based on three categories: work intensity, society and institutions, and liveability. 

The first category considered the aspects of remote working and minimum vacation time, the unemployment rate, and those who work multiple jobs. 

Society and institutions covered the impact of the pandemic and the support and healthcare provided by the city, while liveability considered the issues of affordability, culture, outdoor spaces, safety and wellness. 

In terms of overworked population, Kuala Lumpur scored 17.10%, behind Dubai (23.40%) and Hong Kong (17.09%) despite coming in last in terms of multiple job holders at 1.10%. 

In terms of outdoor space, it ranked second last after Dubai. It also offered just eight days of minimum vacation compared to Dubai at the top with 30. 

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, though, HR expert S Arulkumar recommended taking the survey findings with a pinch of salt.

"It only represents a small sample, and it's tricky to make sweeping statements," Arulkumar, the co-founder of HR Forum and Social Compliance Malaysia, added. 

"Details are required. Are they government servants or from the private sector? What are the types of industries, and so on? Each of these categories is unique and independent." 

He acknowledged cases of overwork due to the system, or out of choice due to personal aspirations. 

"But to a larger extent, it's also due to competency and productivity," he said. 

"These two factors alone outweigh the rest." 

Academic Zaid Ahmad of Universiti Putra Malaysia meanwhile said Kuala Lumpur's inclusion on the list came as no surprise given its status as the most urbanised part of the country. 

"Kuala Lumpur has always been the centre of migration for us," Zaid, of the faculty of human ecology, told MalaysiaNow. 

"When people move to Kuala Lumpur from rural areas, they sometimes have problems managing their time and other aspects of life." 

During the early days of urbanisation, he said, there had been no question of finding a work-life balance. 

"In the city, it's the survival of the fittest. This created a new, workaholic lifestyle. 

"People talk about work all the time because it is a necessity, not a choice." 

According to the US study, the top spots for cities with the best work-life balance were taken by European cities: Oslo (Norway), Bern (Switzerland) and Helsinki (Finland).

Back in Malaysia, Arulkumar said multi-pronged efforts are needed for improvements in work-life balance. 

He said a more sustainable way was to have a well educated and highly skilled workforce to resolve the issue of competency and productivity. 

"Any other intervention would only provide a 'Panadol' effect," he said. 

"Legislation will help, such as the recent amendment to the Employment Act reducing weekly work hours from 48 to 45. But only to a certain extent. 

"Employers will probably try to find ways to avoid overtime pay, and this, in turn, could reduce long work hours." 

Zaid meanwhile said Kuala Lumpur was not a conducive environment for work-life balance, citing its famous traffic jams, flash floods and pollution levels. 

"Human habitats must be based on their nature," he said. 

"Without balance, people won't live normally. This is where urban and development planners play a role, to view the well-being of people from a bigger perspective – not just in terms of money and income."