Long hours common for some professions in Singapore

Data from the Manpower Ministry shows that last year, Singaporeans clocked an average of 45.6 hours a week from January to September.
PHOTO: Reuters

Japan and South Korea battle entrenched mindsets as the younger generation pushes back against the overtime culture. The Straits Times takes a look at the situation in these countries and Singapore, and how some workers and firms are coping.

For litigation lawyer Ms Ho, 28, a typical work day begins at 9am. But there is no certainty over what time it ends.

Work could drag into the wee hours, and she is in her office till 2am or 3am when she has deadlines to meet.

"It's the nature of the work... we are rushing to meet the court's deadline," said the lawyer of five years.

She tries to get out of the office to exercise and have dinner with friends, in an attempt to achieve work-life balance. But often, she will soon be back at her desk with her nose in files.

Data from the Manpower Ministry shows that last year, Singaporeans clocked an average of 45.6 hours a week from January to September. The weekly average for the whole of 2015 was the same.

This means Singaporeans clock an average of 2,371.2 paid hours a year - a figure higher than that in places notorious for their overtime culture, such as Japan and South Korea.

​Read also: Tiredness from overtime seen as badge of honour in South Korea

3 reasons why Singaporeans work such long hours

  • No matter what your boss might say, an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans say they feel "obliged" to work late.
  • At one of the law firms I worked at, lawyers generally tried to leave discreetly if they knocked off before the boss, fearing that they would leave a bad impression if they were caught, never mind that they had finished all their work.
  • A 2012 survey seems to corroborate these observations. Employees who chose to work from home were found to be more likely to forgo positive reviews, even if their work was good.
  • The labour market in Singapore is extremely tight at the moment, meaning employees can afford to pick and choose which companies to work for. This also means that SMEs get the shorter end of the stick as qualified workers flock to MNCs.
  • The upshot is that employees at SMEs tend to be greatly overburdened as employers make up for the lack of manpower by expecting their existing employees to do more work than they can handle.
  • In fact, 6 out of 10 employees in Singapore claim they are overworked.

    When workers are overburdened and yet are unable to raise their productivity levels due to long working hours, that can only spell disaster for the companies involved.

  • Long coffee breaks and long lunches are not uncommon, and everyone has that colleague who spends the entire day staring at his smartphone and then scrambles to finish his work when night falls.

    But that's not the only reason Singaporeans stay late in the office.

  • As bosses expect employees to stay late in the office, employees don't have much incentive to do their work efficiently. I

    n fact, many employees just work as slowly as possible since they're stuck at the office until their boss leaves anyway.

To alleviate the situation, the Government has stepped in with funding and incentives to encourage companies to embrace a more flexible culture to help workers achieve work-life harmony.

For instance, companies are encouraged to allow employees to work from home on certain days, or work more hours on some days in exchange for time off on another weekday.

The hope is that such measures will improve employee engagement and satisfaction, leading to higher productivity and staff retention for firms.

But some professions have a tougher time implementing such initiatives due to the nature of the work, said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

Front-line officers, for instance, need to be at their workplace and cannot work off site.

"For this group of people, it is even more important for flexible timing to be put offically in place. If they cannot work from home, can they be given a few hours off if they need to run errands?" she said.

Firms help employees strike work-life balance

  • Every Friday at 3.30pm - a time many cubicle rats are still working off the post-lunch food coma - staff at Singapore architectural and design firm Ministry Of Design are calling it a day.
  • Released from work, some people such as architectural designer Angie Ng, 30, use the time to run errands before the bank closes for the weekend.
  • Other employees such as senior architectural designer Darren Yio, 36, visit museums, bookshops and cinemas before the crowds descend in the evening.
  • Companies are catching on to the importance of work-life balance as a way of keeping employees happy and productive.
  • Social media company Facebook, for example, has allowed its full-time working fathers at its global offices - including those here - up to four months of paid paternity leave since January.
  • In Singapore, workers covered under Part IV of the Employment Act are entitled to between seven and 14 days of paid annual leave if they have worked for at least three months. But many companies provide more types of special leave days.
  • OCBC Bank allows its staff to leave work an hour early every Friday.
  • On that day, for example, vice-president for consumer financial services Evon Lee, who is in her 30s, leaves work at 5.30pm instead of the usual 6.30pm. She says: "I like that I can spend more time with my family over a good dinner on Fridays."
  • OCBC also allows parents them carry forward 15 days of annual leave to the following year if their child is sitting the PSLE that next year. The bank's head of customer insights, Mr Ken Wong, 42, carried forward nine days of leave from 2014, to spend with his son, Keane, for his PSLE last year.
  • Office hours at DBS main offices end at 5pm on Fridays instead of 6.30pm, and the lights are automatically switched off at that time.
  • Ministry Of Design allows an employee to take the whole day off if it is his birthday, while DBS gives half a day which can be taken any time during the birthday month. DBS assistant vice-president Jeanette Kwek, 30, spent her half-day birthday leave at home with her family last year.
  • Property group Lendlease, lets its employees take 3 days of well-being leave every year, on top of the regular 22 days of annual leave. This new leave, introduced last year, can be used to attend a yoga class, go on holiday or pursue personal interests.
  • Singtel also gives its staff five days of flexi-family leave a year, seven days of study and examination leave for those pursuing approved courses of study and a day of voluntary service leave to do community work.
  • At Nanyang Polytechnic, for example, about 19 per cent of its 1,500 staff work staggered hours and 33 per cent telecommute. Since 2013, the polytechnic has also let all staff take a day off each year to do community service.

Using school teachers as an example, Dr Straughan said: "If they have some free time during the day when they are not teaching, it should be fine for them to use that time to run errands and attend to matters.

"They should not have to stay in school the entire time if they are already clocking such long hours."

Teachers often start their day at around 6am and end only in the late afternoon or evening, as they juggle teaching and administrative duties like marking papers and organising activities.

It is up to companies to think up creative strategies and policies to help their employees maintain work-life harmony, Dr Straughan added.

For Ms Ho (who declined to give her full name), while she enjoys the challenges of her job, she acknowledged her work hours are not sustainable in the long term.

"Many of my peers are of the view that if we want to lead a healthier lifestyle, the best way may be to leave the profession altogether," she said.

​Read also: Employees in Japan are on the clock - but off the record


This article was first published on Jan 17, 2017.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.