The Big Read: Breaking Singapore’s workaholic culture
For Singapore workers to continue putting in the same long hours as their cohorts of yesteryear would mean less or even little time to care for their ageing parents, experts say.
SINGAPORE: For generations, people on this island state have been told to “study hard and work hard”, as they sought a better life for themselves and their families and established a shiny reputation in the eyes of investors.
The message has well and truly sunk in: Despite statistics from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) showing that the number of working hours here has been on a steady decline in general since at least 2010, Singapore workers remain among the hardest working in the world — at least going by the number of hours clocked.
However, there is a need to address the long hours in light of the nation’s demographic changes, experts said.
Singapore’s population is ageing, with many young workers’ parents approaching or in their 60s. For these workers to continue putting in the same long hours as their cohorts of yesteryear would mean less or even little time to care for their ageing parents, the experts said.
At the same time, more women are choosing to remain single or have fewer children, and this has contributed to the total fertility rate dropping to a seven-year low last year. While there are many reasons why people choose to have smaller families, the experts noted that one is cited often: Long working hours.
Based on latest available global statistics, Singapore residents in 2015 worked the second longest week in developed cities around the world, clocking in 45.6 hours, trailing only behind Hong Kong at 50.1 hours.
When it comes to country-by-country comparisons, a 2016 report by ManpowerGroup — a multinational human resource consultancy listed on the New York stock exchange — also found that millennials (aged between 20 and 34) in Singapore worked the joint-second longest hours (48) in the world, behind India (52) and on par with China and Mexico.
In response to queries, the MOM said it receives about 200 complaints on “excessive working hours” each year, and it looks into infringements under the Employment Act.
For auditor Crystal Wong, 27, the long hours “did not make it easy” for her to expand her family.
Her son turns one in a month, and she and her husband plan to stop at two after their next child, amid the couple’s growing concerns over their household finances and how much quality time they could spend with the children. She added:
In my previous job, my manager even told me to try not to have a kid in the first half of the year because of the peak audit period.
Ms Wong quit her job and later found out that she was pregnant during her first week at her new job. Her mother-in-law now takes care of the infant before Ms Wong picks him up at 6.30pm every day after work.
The inverse relationship between long working hours and a healthy family life has long been established.
As National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser pointed out, working long hours and being mentally occupied with work lead to less quality time with family members, especially those who need attention the most.
Even when one is physically present, being “mentally or emotionally absent” may have negative consequences on the family,” the associate professor said.
“This amounts to neglecting one’s familial roles as a parent, child and spouse … Given that the family is a critical pillar of society, it is important that Singaporeans invest time on family life, and not take family and marital relationships for granted,” he added.'
WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL US — AND WHAT THEY DON’T
For many employees here, spending more time with the family may be easier said than done, what with Singaporeans’ average working hours still among the highest in the world, despite being on a downward trend.
In its third-quarter labour report released last week, the MOM noted that the number of working hours had been falling steadily for almost the past decade.
Singapore employees worked an average of 44.9 paid hours weekly in September, down from 46.3 hours in September 2010. This works out to an average of 8.98 hours a day for a five-day work week in September, and 9.26 hours a day for the same month in 2010. Paid hours refer to standard work hours as well as paid overtime.
The report also captures two other indicators:
1. Usual hours worked: This refers to the hours an employee typically works in a week, including unpaid overtime and hours spent checking work emails or carrying out other regular tasks at home.
2. Actual hours worked: This includes all forms of overtime hours, regardless of whether they are regular in nature or whether they are paid for. The International Labour Organisation regards this indicator as a reflective measure of the amount of labour being input into the economy.
The usual hours worked declined from the recent peak of 46.6 hours a week in 2010 to 43.2 hours in 2017, according to statistics from the MOM. Actual hours worked also dropped, from a high of 45.6 hours in 2010 to 43.0 in 2017.
The ministry attributed the decline to the growing prevalence of part-time work; shifts in job composition with an increasing number of employees working as professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs); and productivity gains made through technological advancements.
Ms Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC, noted that the emergence of the gig economy, as well as a “larger younger generation wanting more work-life balance”, also played a part in the drop.
The MOM report was greeted with disbelief by some netizens, with several pointing out that they are working longer hours and how technology has resulted in them having to frequently attend to work outside of office hours via emails or whatsapp messages.
Professor Ng Yew-Kwang, an economics professor from Nanyang Technological University, said that the slight dip in working hours among Singapore workers was a “natural result” of economic growth or higher per capita income, as people consume more goods and leisure.
“But the decrease ... is not very big and hence may not quite meet people’s expectations. Thus, this may (result in) people feeling not enough relief from over-working,” he said.
Labour economists said that in calculating such statistics, the Government follows standardised international measures of work and the labour force, in accordance with the International Labour Organisation.
Dr Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said a labour force survey is conducted by first asking sampled workers to provide information on their employment and conditions of employment, including work hours. The data collected is then aggregated for the labour force as a whole.
The number of hours worked given by the sampled workers was based on a reference week, such as the week immediately preceding the survey date.
It is questionable whether people accurately estimate their working hours when responding to such labour surveys, “and if not, whether their estimates are systematically biased”, Dr Theseira noted.
As technology allows work to encroach further into daily life — thus blurring the lines between home and office — there could be systematic under-estimation of working hours in recent years in many advanced economies, he added.
The MOM survey showed Singapore employees worked an average of 45.1 hours per week, last year. In comparison, workers in South Korea put in 38.9 hours, while those in Japan worked 32.9 hours.
While some Singaporeans might be surprised to know that they clock in more hours than their Japanese or South Korean counterparts — famed for their long-hours office culture — the experts cautioned against making a comparison based on statistics alone.
Mr Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB Private Banking, noted that both Japan and South Korea — and their respective capitals of Tokyo and Seoul — have a relatively larger and more diverse workforce compared to Singapore's.
“I suspect if you look at the statistics from the Tokyo city centre, the hours will be much longer than, say, at the Central Business District here,” he said.
Similarly, one cannot compare working hours between those in developing cities — such as Mumbai or Hanoi — and those in developed cities, such as Singapore. At “different stages of development”, doing so would not be comparing apples to apples, he pointed out.
“All kinds of activities take place in developing cities ... and I suspect the range of hours worked vary enormously. In developed cities, you have more service-oriented jobs, targeted towards those living in the city,” he reiterated.
LONG HOURS ACROSS INDUSTRIES
The MOM report detailed the average weekly total paid hours clocked by employees in different industries.
Based on the report, those working in insurance services put in 40.1 paid hours in September, the lowest among all the industries.
Blue-collar workers continued to work the longest hours. Employees in transport-equipment manufacturing worked the most, at 51.3 hours a week, followed by those in the security and investigation industry, who worked 51 hours a week on average.
Employees in various industries interviewed said they face long working hours, even when these may be not be statistically reflected.
Mr Benjamin Ng, who has been in insurance for three years, noted that the concept of “paid hours” does not necessarily apply to insurance agents. The associate director at AXA Singapore, who was previously a relationship manager at a bank for seven years, said that many work up to 60 hours a week, going for roadshows and meeting clients.
“Most insurance agents are self-employed and earn their money through commissions. The money is good but time spent (on the job) is very long … You decide how many hours you work, depending on how driven you are,” the 36-year-old said.
If he hired salaried agents, they would work more than 40 hours a week, inclusive of training, he added.
A secondary school teacher of 10 years, who wanted to be known only as Karen as she was not authorised to speak to the media, pointed out that teachers have to frequently work outside their paid hours.
“Almost every day, we spend about eight to 12 hours in school — some colleagues arrive at 6.30am and leave at 6.30pm,” said the 34-year-old. “At the same time, during crunch periods like exams, which happen every term, teachers can easily work three hours after school hours, marking and preparing for exams.”
While they have more free periods when examinations are over, for instance, they would still be saddled with co-curricular activities and other administrative duties.
The MOM report showed that in terms of paid hours, employees in the public administration and education sector worked 41.2 hours on average in September, slightly shorter than the 41.4 hours for the whole of last year.
Lawyers work notoriously long hours, and the problem has been highlighted by the industry as it grapples with high attrition, particularly among younger practitioners.
In his first two years of practice at a medium-sized law firm, lawyer Genesis Shen said he worked nine to 16 hours daily.
Mr Shen, 30, now a director at another firm Templars Law, said that when their workload peaked, he and his colleagues could “sometimes be working 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week”.
Templars Law is a smaller practice that offers “a lot more flexibility”, which means he now has the freedom to pace himself and not work more than 12 hours a day unless he absolutely has to, he added.
Over in the security industry, long hours are a given, said security guard Surjeet Singh, 58.
Mr Singh, who has been in the industry for two decades, said that typically, security guards work 12-hour shifts, 26 days a month — working out to about six days a week.
The security supervisor with Ademco Security Group works the permanent day shift from 8am to 8pm.
“I’m used to working long hours because I’ve been in the industry for so long, but if I were married and had young kids, I couldn’t cope. I’m alone now so it’s okay. The long hours keep me occupied,” added Mr Singh, whose two daughters and wife emigrated to the United States before he became a security guard.
TECHNOLOGY: BOON OR BANE?
While rapid technological developments have had mostly positive impact on work life, there have been some downsides.
Mr Ng said that the Internet has greatly increased work efficiency, compared to a decade ago when he first joined the finance industry.
Apart from being highly mobile and working out of the office most of the time, insurance agents like him can “get a lot more things done online” now, such as with sales submissions.
“Last time, this was done in hard copy. You had to meet the customer, do the documentation, take it back to the office and do the processing. That could take a few days. Now we can submit claims online and it’ll take maybe an hour,” he added.
However, as people can now read and respond to work emails or read work documents on their mobile devices outside the office, there is a “growing extension of the workplace into other areas of life through always-on email, phones, and other connections”, Dr Theseira pointed out.
Significant improvements in technology in the legal industry may not translate into shorter working hours for lawyers, said Mr Shen. The industry has evolved such that lawyers now charge less than what they used to for certain cases, which means they have to take on more cases to maintain the same level of income.
NUS sociologist Dr Tan noted: “I think, as a general rule, ‘working smarter’ and leveraging IT would allow us to work fewer hours and still be competitive. However, I reckon that for jobs where human ‘mental’ inputs matter greatly, and our competitors have moved even faster, there would be a need to work longer hours, at least until AI (artificial intelligence) and advanced IT solutions kick in.”
As far as Blackmagic Design Asia director Richard Lim is concerned, technology is “a great thing” and it is company culture and personal discipline which determine whether technology disrupts personal time.
“People have been working long hours and neglecting family life even when such technology isn’t available. It is how you use it that matters,” said Mr Lim. His firm, an Australia-based digital cinema company and manufacturer, hires about 30 full-time workers.
Are long working hours simply necessary for businesses here to remain competitive, or are they part of the nation’s work culture?
Mr Paul Heng, managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, believed that working fewer hours would hurt Singapore’s competitiveness among other Asian countries, as labour costs and productivity are “two key components of business competitiveness”.
On the other hand, Dr Theseira pointed to very competitive economies with a low number of hours worked, such as Germany. The European country worked the shortest average weekly hours globally last year: 26.1 hours.
“It’s hard to generalise because increasing hours worked doesn’t always mean that those additional hours will be spent on highly productive activities,” the labour economist added.
While the number of hours an employee works daily depends on the job and many other factors, experts and those in the workforce pointed to several deep-seated cultural practices in Singapore that increase time spent in the office.
Ms Karen Blal, regional director of CIPB Asia, a professional body for human resource and people development, highlighted a typical scene she had noticed in Singapore: Colleagues going for long lunches together.
Ms Blal, who has worked in other Western countries such as France and the United Kingdom, referred to Singapore workers being “more collegiate in the work they work”.
“They seem to have a lot more social interaction in the workplace than there is in various other countries that I’ve worked, which is a good thing. On the other hand, it could be one of the reasons why people work longer hours, because they are doing that with their colleagues, and tend to stay longer,” she said.
Another phenomenon she noted was “presenteeism”, where employees stay in the office even after their work is done — till their bosses leave.
Senior talent manager Fadhil Azmi, 34, concurred that there is pressure on employees to stay on longer when bosses work beyond office hours. “And it’s also when the culture is to stay extra hours to get work done, even when the work can be completed the next day,” he said.
In his previous jobs — he was a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces for eight years, before becoming an events manager — most of his colleagues “found it easier” to deal with vendors, clients and trainees during office hours. They would then leave work till after the meetings “since everyone stays back anyway”.
“It became something expected of us. To leave (soon) after office hours gets you ‘marked’,” Mr Fadhil added.
An auditor at a multinational finance services company, who wanted to be known only as Elaine, said that some people “don’t leave early because it creates the wrong impression”.
For those in the finance sector like her, while long hours are a must during peak periods, such practices continue even during non-peak periods. Unable to take the “unsustainable” hours, Elaine left her first job at a Big Four accounting firm after four-and-a-half years.
“Working long hours is about work pressure, and it’s built into the culture,” the 28-year-old added.
Then again, even when bosses tell their employees to leave earlier, they often are reluctant to do so, said criminal lawyer Kalidass Murugaiyan. He runs his own law firm, Kalidass Law Corporation, after about a decade serving as a public prosecutor, then working in private firms.
For example, the 46-year-old recently took an intern to a meeting at the Attorney-General’s Chambers. When it ended after 6pm, he told her to go home from there, but she wanted to head back to the office.
“I said, what is it you want to finish on a Friday evening? Who’s waiting for documents on a Saturday? She finally, very grudgingly, left. I had to buy her a coffee to convince her to go home,” he said laughingly.
However, Mr Kalidass noted that the long hours were sometimes necessary in order to go through huge amounts of legal documents, such as when he was involved in several civil trials after first entering private practice in 2012.
SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT STEP IN?
Back in 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore’s work week would be shortened from five-and-a-half to five days — a move that he said “we have always resisted”.
Speaking at his maiden National Day Rally, he noted that having a five-day work week was “one of the most important things for our young people”.
More recently, several countries have turned to legislation to help ease the demands on their workers.
Earlier this week, Reuters reported that burnout and stress have led to more companies around the world trying a four-day work week. Britain’s Trades Union Congress is pushing for the country to move to that by the end of the century.
South Korea cut its maximum weekly work hours from 68 to 52 earlier this year. The move aims to improve living standards, boost productivity and increase the country’s birth rate, which hit a record low last year.
Japan also capped overtime work at 100 hours a month in June this year, a direct response to concerns about death by overwork, known as karoshi.
About two years ago, France, which already has a 35-hour work week, introduced laws requiring large companies to give their employees the right to disconnect from work emails outside work hours.
Experts said that for now, they did not think that Singapore needs to introduce more legislation or policies in this regard.
In Singapore, employees covered under the Employment Act are allowed to work up to 44 hours a week. They are also not allowed to work more than 12 hours a day, and can chalk up only a maximum of 72 hours’ overtime a month.
CIMB’s Mr Song reiterated that Singapore already follows international labour standards and legislates maximum working hours. Furthermore, businesses suffering from labour shortage problems would protest any move to reduce working hours further, he added.
INDIVIDUALS TAKE CONTROL
Observers believe that bosses here, as well as employees themselves, can tackle the problem on their own — and some have already taken matters into their own hands.
Blackmagic Design Asia’s Mr Lim asks his employees not to work beyond their office hours of 9am to 6pm.
“There is time for work and time for life. So when this becomes a practice, it becomes a culture over time to work hard and play hard. Each employee will then be able to plan for his or her own personal needs,” he said.
Ms Charlotte Murray, managing director of marketing agency Alive Brand Experience, asks her team how everyone is doing near the end of the day, and tries to “rally everyone together” to split the workload if someone is overwhelmed. Her six employees all generally leave by 6.30pm or 7pm.
She also stressed the importance of not expecting her employees to respond to their work emails all the time. If a particularly important deadline is looming, she added, employees can choose how often and when they want to check their mobile phones or emails.
“The distinction is when employers expect their employees to constantly be online and use it almost as an excuse that the technology exists, so why aren’t they checking their emails? I think it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect people to work 24/7 because technology allows it,” Ms Murray said.
As some employers have found out to their detriment, workers could be pushed out of the door if they find themselves constantly slogging away in office and having to attend to work even after they have knocked off.
Individuals also need to take greater control and where possible, manage their own time well and prioritise what is important.
Mr Kalidass said: “I take shorter breaks, and if I need to, I also take short lunches, but I try to make sure I finish my work before it’s too late in the day.
“As you grow older, you realise, at the end of the day, you don’t want to regret it — that in the pursuit of imagined excellence, you lose out on your life.”