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COMMENT: Can Singaporeans break the workaholic culture?

·3 min read
People walk during their lunch break in the financial business district of Raffles Place in Singapore on January 11, 2021. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Employees say work-life boundaries have become blurred during the pandemic. (PHOTO: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

By Wu Pei Chuan

SINGAPORE — Labour Day is celebrated in Singapore and many other countries to honour workers. We have come far in reducing the working hours and improving the working conditions of workers.

In Singapore, government statistics showed that the weekly paid hours have come down gradually, from 47.0 in the year 2000, to 46.2 in 2010 and then 44.0 in 2020.

However, Singapore was the second most overworked city in a Kisi survey in 2020, only behind Hong Kong. Singapore also placed 41st out of 50 cities in work-life balance, with the overworked population increasing from 23 per cent in 2019 to 25.1 per cent in 2020.

It seems that we are still working hard. This phenomenon can be witnessed in other Asian cities as well. Japanese workers are reluctant to take annual leave. Chinese workers in the technology industry are burning out due to the infamous 996 work schedule, where they clock in from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

Why we work hard

Many say this is due to the deep-rooted hard-working culture in Asia, where collectivism and power distance prevail. Workers shy away from knocking off earlier than their superiors and do not dare to say no when additional duties are assigned at odd hours.

Technology has also prolonged the time that workers are connected to their jobs. The messages and emails beyond work hours could easily result in burnout, stress, and reduced levels of job and life satisfaction. This could have a negative impact on mental well-being.

The overworking situation intensified in 2020 when employees were required to work from home during global lockdowns. Employees say work-life boundaries have become blurred, whereas managers worry about “face time” and performance outcomes.

In the May 2020 JobStreet Singapore survey report, employees in Singapore were less happy with their quality of life during the pandemic, with 44 per cent indicating that they were unhappy during the pandemic, compared to 9 per cent before the pandemic. Workers reported that they were facing heavier workload (31%) and work-family imbalance (30%). For those working from home, their top three concerns were working longer hours (55%), creating a separate workspace (47%), and changing the times they worked (44%).

Changes can be taken in small steps

But we can take small steps to change the working conditions.

As companies balance safety measures and company operations, one thing to consider in addition is employee wellness and the employee experience. After all, people are the key to a company’s success.

Some companies have tried to help employees cope better in these changing circumstances, such as organising virtual team-bonding events or sending care packages to their employees. Microsoft has recently added five “well-being days” of annual leave to every employee across their global operations. Accenture launched an online resource kit in 2020 to help employees build mental resilience and improve mental well-being.

Workers today may not encounter working conditions as harsh as decades ago. But they are facing constant job challenges. Providing social support and well-being perks are critical steps to safeguard employees’ well-being and health. The next step would be centred on work itself.

It’s time for business leaders to turn around the table and address heavy workload situations in Asia. As we celebrate Labour Day, let’s continue in our efforts to achieve greater work-life balance.

Dr Wu Pei Chuan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management & Organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. She is also the Deputy Academic Director for the MSc in Human Capital Management and Analytics programme. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.