Why do Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur work so hard?

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A typical working day for Singaporean office worker Shamir Osman lasts about nine and a half hours, so packed full of meetings and calls that he sometimes does not even get a chance to eat.

The 39-year-old public relations manager's hectic schedule is far from unusual in the city state, where the average working week lasts just shy of 45 hours - the second longest in the Asia-Pacific, according to a study of 40 cities done by office access control systems provider Kisi.

The report, released in August, looked at the length of workers' commutes, their arrival time at work, the number of hours they worked per week and the amount of leave taken to determine the hardest-working cities in the world - with three of the top five being in Asia.

Japanese megacity Tokyo took the top spot, with Singapore coming in second, followed by the US capital of Washington, Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur - which had the longest average working week at 46 hours - and then Houston in Texas.

At the other end of the scale, the cities judged to have the best work-life balance were all in Northern Europe: Helsinki in Finland first, followed by Germany's Munich, Norway's Oslo - which had the shortest working week at just under 39 hours on average - then Hamburg in Germany and Sweden's Stockholm.

For Osman, who has not been on holiday since a weeklong trip to Yogyakarta in October, the almost 30 days of leave that an average worker in Munich takes each year might seem excessive, especially as the Singaporean average is just 14 days - but even this amount of time is a luxury compared to the fewer than 10 days per year that the average employee in Tokyo takes off work.

So why do cities in Asia work so hard? Erman Tan, former president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, puts it down to "work culture and work behaviour".

"Singapore says that being hardworking is a virtue, and it is a competitive environment so people have to work hard to keep up with the competition," he said.

This workaholic culture is something to which merchandiser Betty Ho - a former employee of a Japanese firm in Singapore - can fully attest.

"You cannot be late, there are a lot of meetings, your desk has to be neat and organised, the boss is always right and you cannot leave the office before him," said the 41-year-old.

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Earlier this year, the excessive hours some tech companies in China expect their employees to work hit the headlines, after a post on global code-sharing and collaboration platform Github triggered a wider backlash against the so-called 996 system - which stands for working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

The complaints spiralled into a broader debate on productivity and work-life balance in the country, with tech tycoon Jack Ma, founder of South China Morning Post owner Alibaba, saying that he saw the 996 schedule as a "huge blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity to have".

"If you do not do 996 when you are young, when will you? Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honour to boast about?" he said at an internal Alibaba event in April, according to a transcript published on the company's official WeChat account.

It is far from clear, however, that long hours spent at work lead to any increase in productivity.

Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that in 2017, for example, the average Japanese worker generated US$46.10 (S$62.25) towards their country's gross domestic product for every hour worked, while the average Finn generated US$64.60 per hour - meaning that each employee in Japan contributed less to the overall national economy than their counterparts in Finland, despite working 125 more hours over the year.

A similar conclusion was reached by US tech giant Microsoft when it trialled a four-day work week at its offices in Japan, giving its entire 2,300-strong workforce Fridays off for the month of August without decreasing their pay.

The shorter work week lead to more efficient meetings, happier workers and a productivity boost of about 40 per cent, Microsoft said, with both employee absence and electricity use down by about a quarter.

Tan, the human relations expert who also runs chemical engineering company Asia Polyurethane Manufacturing, said that thanks to modern technology, work could now be done from anywhere.

"At home, on the train … On your smartphone, you can answer emails, chats and WhatsApp or WeChat messages. You can do everything using your phone and have work-life integration, working around the clock."

But such 24-hour connectivity can become a bugbear for some - including Osman, the Singapore-based public relations manager, who just wants to switch off after a long day at work.

Being contactable at all times has its benefits, such as being able to run personal errands while still responding to work matters, he said, "but in the same breath, that very benefit can be the bane of some employees' existence".

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"Some organisations expect their employees to respond to work matters even when they are taking time off. That can nurture a negative attitude towards work and colleagues, even burn out, because employees always have to be switched on."

Etain Chow, 28, a senior brand manager at an advertising agency in Kuala Lumpur, sets herself rules to avoid falling into this trap - she does not reply to work emails and messages "before 9am or past 7.30pm" and gives "no responses on weekends".

That is, until she has a deadline to meet, when she sometimes stays in the office until 9pm and will work through Saturdays and Sundays.

She says she does not mind though, as she gets days off in lieu for working weekends and chalks the sometimes heavy workload up to her career choices.

"I think to some degree, it comes with the territory of the industry," she said. "If I really wanted [a good] work-life balance, I'd work in banking or something I guess."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post