Why do Singaporean workers have such long hours?

March 11, 201510:00 am1168 views

If the news stories are to be believed, Singaporean workers are disengaged and unproductive, a problem which supposedly costs the economy $6 billion per year. This is not to say that they don’t spend a lot of time at work, though.

In fact, Singaporean workers reportedly work the longest hours in the world. Based on their lower productivity levels this means they’re either doing the same amount or even less in a longer amount of time than their counterparts in other countries.

A recent International Labour Office (ILO) report shows that increased output (ie. longer working hours) actually decreases the amount of labour output per hour. On the other hand, increased workplace flexibility makes workers more productive because they experience less negative spillover into their lives, and happy workers are more productive.

In fact, the Economist has published a nice little graph illustrating the relationship between the number of hours worked and productivity.


Given these findings, it’s actually a no-brainer that Singapore’s rigid work environment — with its long hours — has produced incredibly unproductive workers. So, why do Singaporeans work such long hours when it makes them even less productive? Here are three major reasons:

1) Bosses are still obsessed with face time

No matter what your boss might say, an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans say they feel “obliged” to work late. Based on the years I’ve spent working in various offices, I have to say that this has been true in my experience—not only because of workers’ perception, but the attitudes of their bosses.

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. On the flip side, it was not uncommon to hear bosses complaining that an employee had already left the office. Some bosses also tended to speak unfavourably of workers who were away on annual leave or maternity leave.

At another firm, trainees in a certain department were reportedly told that they were expected to sit around in the office until at least 8:30pm even if they had finished their work, just in case anything urgent came in (the official working hours were from 9 am to 6 pm).

In general, there was much talk about “putting in the hours”, which we as employees found perplexing, as we were of the opinion that the main consideration should be whether the work could get done, not putting in the hours just for the sake of it. 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, despite good work.

2) Workers are overburdened

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. If Singapore is serious about raising productivity, firms need to rethink their HR policies.

Employers can choose between a churn & burn employment strategy or restricting their growth, arresting their attrition and  enhancing their employer branding, in order to retain, grow and manage their human capital as they scale their businesses. More often than not, employers choose the easy way out.


3) Employees have little incentive to be productive

With most Singapore employees feeling pretty damn unhappy, it’s not hard to see why they’re not exactly leaping up with enthusiasm in a bid to raise their productivity. 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. In fact, many employees just work as slowly as possible since they’re stuck at the office until their boss leaves anyway.

At one of my previous workplaces, employees could be seen strolling around the office at all hours of the day, deeply immersed in gossip. Many of these employees then stayed back in the office until at late as 10pm, slowly finishing up their work. If everyone around them was packing up and leaving at 6pm on the dot, things might have been different.

This article was adapted from Moneysmart.Sg. The author, Joanne Poh, is a former Singapore property lawyer.

See: Working hours: Get a Life

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