All work and no play

PHOTO: All work and no play

DRAUGHTSMAN David Lee likes to play Michael Buble's song Home near knock-off time at his office.

"When Buble sings I wanna go home, I've got to go home', I'll turn up the volume. But my lady boss never gets the hint," he grumbles.

Lee, 36, says his boss has a tendency to call for a meeting or an "emergency" brainstorming session at 5.45pm. The staff only get to leave the office at 8pm most days and when there is a project deadline to meet, they burn the midnight oil.

For many Malaysians, the long hours that Lee and his colleagues spend at the office is not something unusual. In fact, about a third of the Malaysian working population spend over 11 hours at the office daily, giving the ant colony a run for its money in the title race for "most hardworking".

According to a global survey that polled some 12,000 business people in 85 countries, Malaysians are not only clocking more hours at work but bringing their office load back home as well.

About 47 per cent of Malaysian workers take tasks home to finish more than three times a week, compared to 43 per cent globally; 15 per cent regularly work more than 11 hours a day, compared with 10 per cent globally.

The survey by Regus, the world's largest provider of workplace solutions, also found "a clear blurring" of the line separating work and home with long-term effects, noting that such over-work could be damaging to both workers' health and overall productivity as workers may drive themselves too hard and become disaffected, depressed and even physically ill.

As Budget 2012 pushes for the retirement age of civil servants be raised from 58 to 60 and the proposed Private Sector Retirement Age Bill empowering the Government to stipulate the retirement age of private sector employees, Malaysians look set to contribute even more to the country's economy. And they expect better rewards.

Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) president Mohd Khalid Atan says the Regus survey confirms what the union has always known.

"The MTUC has been calling for higher remuneration and better benefits for a long time now because we've always known how hard Malaysians work. Unfortunately, employers always say that our workers are not productive enough even when we ask for minimum wage. I honestly don't know by what standards they are measuring our productivity. Perhaps with this survey, employers will finally see the light," he says.

National Union of Bank Employees (Nube) assistant general-secretary A. Karuna agrees.

Karuna, who is also the Nube Kuala Lumpur branch secretary, says bank employees work late because they don't have a choice.

"The cost of living, especially in big cities, is too high and employees have to work more to earn overtime to make ends meet.

"By offering higher basic salaries, employers are fulfilling their corporate social responsibility because their staff will be able to earn a decent living and still have time for the family," she adds.

Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Shamsuddin Bardan points out that employees are paid overtime when they stay late, so it's a non-issue.

"Generally speaking, 40 per cent of the salary of those not in managerial positions are derived from overtime claims. If those in managerial positions are able to better manage their own time, they won't have to stay back as often.

"Of course, there must be a balance between quality living and delivering at the office but it really depends on how efficient the individual is at time management.

"If you cannot meet your deadlines and refuse to put in the extra effort to get things done, your performance and career advancement may be affected," he adds.

Some actually bring their work home or to trendy coffee outlets just to show that they are busy.

"I suppose they want their friends and relatives to see how important they are. So for some, it's a question of showing off how important they are in a company. It's more of an ego-stroking exercise," Shamsuddin muses.

Human resource practitioner S.C. Lim who manages a head-hunting agency in Petaling Jaya, says local employers expect their staff to stay back.

Some even arrange for meetings in the evenings, expecting the employees to linger on.

"They think it's alright to do that," she observes.

"Western countries or even orang putih managers based in Malaysia do not expect or believe in employees staying back after work. They believe in productivity and quality rather than longer hours of work, which may not produce better results."

Lim, however, warns that an employee will not be offered a job regardless of how skilful or qualified he or she is if the person can't work late.

She notes that while it's true Malaysians bring work home, it may not necessarily mean that we're a really hardworking lot.

"Our work culture is such that no reasonable time period is given for one to perform a task well. Almost every company here expects immediate solutions and responses.

"Keen competition has left most people with no choice but to deliver despite the unreasonable time frame given, hence the culture of longer working hours and bringing work home," says Lim.

Asian Academy of Management (AAM) executive committee member and past president Prof Datuk Dr Ishak Ismail says it's wrong to have a negative perception of those who leave the office punctually at knock-off time.

"What's more important is efficiency and productivity. Unfortunately, the reality is that most clock-watchers are not committed to getting the job done well because they are preoccupied with arriving and leaving on time," he says.

"As employees, you have to accomplish certain tasks. Bringing work home is not a problem but it's up to you to make sure that it doesn't disrupt your family time."

Dr Ishak questions why there is still inefficiency if Malaysians are really working that hard.

He believes it's because the eight working hours have not been fully utilised in a proper manner.