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The Curious Case Of The Singapore Worker
SINGAPORE workers are caught between their cubicle and a hard place. They work among the longest hours in the world, and in return, they are described as ''not hungry'' and lacking ''fire in the belly''. Not to mix the two metaphors or anything, but it's hard to be hungry when your midsection is engulfed in flames. In all seriousness, however, it seems that the country's lacklustre productivity and slowing growth are fuelling anxiety about the future.
As the situation reaches fever pitch,the disconnect between the country's leaders, employers and employees has only seemed to grow, with little consensus on what has led to this hot mess.
The productivity problem is certainly larger than any single factor, but it appears that workers are feeling the heat most.
For all their time warming the office seat, employees here can apparently do no right.
Hard day's night
Last year, Singapore's workers put in an average of 2,371.2 paid hours, according to the Ministry of Manpower's Comprehensive Labour Force Survey.
This beat all the countries (34 of them then) in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, including known workaholic nations such as Japan with 1,719 hours and South Korea with 2,113 hours.
Some people work long hours for no good reason at all, says an analyst at an investment bank whom The Business Times (BT) will call "James".
"There are people who stay late in the office because they are insecure enough to think it will impress their managers and colleagues that they work so hard. Maybe because they want to appear indispensable to improve their own job security, or maybe because they actually think people will feel admiration for them," he says.
Some employees even engage in make-believe work, in a fluorescent-lit hell largely of their own making.
"Sometimes they pretend to work, sometimes they are actually working, sometimes they make work for themselves to convince themselves that they have to work late. Then, there are the unfortunate people who have to work for such people," James adds.
There are, of course, industries with legitimately heavy workloads that demand long hours in the office. Sectors notorious for this include teaching, investment banking, law and creative work such as public relations and advertising.
For Genesis Shen, legal associate at Gloria James-Civetta & Co, the number of hours he spends at work depends on his firm's operational needs.
When his cases are at a slower stage of proceedings, for example, he is able to knock off at 6pm. But everything changes during crunch time.
"If the workload is heavy and you're rushing to meet deadlines, there are times when I survive on three to four hours of sleep each night for up to five nights in a row. When an urgent deadline is due, there are times when I have to work through the night without sleep and continue the next working day," he tells BT.
Mr Shen says such demanding hours are par for the course in the trade. There are, after all, "worse stories" from his contemporaries in large firms.
"Most of us feel resigned to our fate, that this is the way things are," he says.
Paradoxically, one way for our dismal productivity to improve is to stop employees from putting in long hours for the sake of it.
"In Singapore, there is a perverse pride when high fliers wear their eyebags like a badge of honour," says Mr Shen.
Already, in Tokyo - the city that practically invented office face-time - its governor has ordered municipal employees to leave the office by 8pm. In fact, "overtime prevention" teams are being set up in the metropolitan government to do things like turn off the lights in the office in order to nudge workers home.
For some of us, office hours are long simply because bureaucracy has run amok.
Mr Shen suspects that Singapore workers have low productivity rates because of the multiple layers of checks in certain organisations.
He illustrates it like this: A piece of work can be done in three hours by a junior executive, and checked and edited for two hours by a senior executive, which is then checked and edited for one hour again by a manager and finally checked and confirmed for 30 minutes by the director.
6 ½ hours in total, for one piece of work. It is the ludicrous and extreme opposite of "ownself check ownself", and it creates many problems.
"The first (problem) is inefficiency in the process, the second is that management demonstrates a lack of trust in employees, and finally, a mindset (at) the bottom that 'someone up there will check' and a similar mindset at the top that 'someone down there has already checked', with the result that no one takes any real ownership of the work," Mr Shen says.
We didn't start the fire
Even as your average white-collar stiff endures many a sleepless night, there is a fear that a growing preoccupation with work-life balance will erode perseverance and hard work.
This fear forms the undercurrent of present-day Singapore's anxiety - the country's workforce is too soft, say our country's leaders. They will be no match for workers elsewhere who will steal their lunch.
"Such statements are problematic when we do not know who we are being compared to," says Foo Chek Wee, HR director of Zalora.
"Is it a comparison between nationalities, or between generations? I do find that Singaporeans are a motivated group. For example, count the number of achievements we have made as a country, vis-à-vis countries of similar popular size. Can we achieve so much and yet be not hungry enough or lack fire in the belly?"
Employers have mixed views about this perceived change in worker's attitudes.
Karine Cheong, founder of skincare brand Klarity, doesn't agree that employees lack drive.
"They are hungry and driven to better themselves and embrace the learning opportunities available. The stereotype about millennials or workers in general not being hungry enough - I don't see that with my team," she says.
Even so, Toby Koh, group managing director of Ademco Security Group takes a dimmer view of things.
Mr Koh, who has offices in seven countries including Singapore, notes that those in developing countries have more drive compared to Singaporeans in similar positions.
While he acknowledges that Singaporeans are generally hardworking and honest, they are not as "street-smart" compared to other nationalities, whom he describes as having "a tenacious ability to resolve issues and find their way out of situations".
Singapore workers, on the other hand, are seen to have a good work ethic, but generally averse to risk-taking and doing things differently.
"Like it or not, complacency may have set in as we have become too comfortable," says Ho Chee Yue, founder of startup XYZ Wave.
"It's human nature to stop being hungry once you're in a comfortable zone over a period of time."
This entrenched comfort might be setting us up for a world of hurt down the road.
"My biggest concern for Singapore is our current generation which has it all - how will they, and can they, compete against their peers in the region 30 years from now? That thought frightens me no end," says Ademco's Mr Koh.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall
And so it goes, that the government, employers and subordinates eventually reach a stalemate of mutually assured dissatisfaction.
Employers blame workers for having a poor work ethic, while employees blame the government for letting in foreigners, and so it goes. The problem, however, might be larger than any one of those things.
Earlier this year, a Robert Half survey found that 57 per cent of local businesses had encountered staff who were physically present but mentally absent. "Inner resignation", the phenomenon is called.
According to the survey, inner resignation tended to be more common in large- and medium-sized firms, compared to small ones.
Some of this white-collar ennui, it appears, comes from being a cog in a large machine. "Management often assumes that everyone knows their roles and functions as cogs and wheels in the scheme of the organisation," says Julie Haw, managing director of Frosts Food and Beverage.
"They often forget that people lose perspective when they are just part of the machine or may never have been aware of their roles in the bigger scheme of things to begin with."
She adds that when people do not see the purpose of their job and its impact on organisational efficacy, it is very hard to stay inspired and motivated.
This must be especially the case in a corporate setting, when so much achievement is intangible or lacks concrete dimensions.
Instead, the fruits of someone's labour - the spreadsheets, reports and presentations - tend to vanish into Big Business's black hole.
These days, we are championing the "culture of mastery", as a foil to that looming existential hollowness - hoping that having people take pride in their jobs will invigorate the workforce.
The trouble is, many of the cited examples of mastery involve actual things you can hold, like the products of Japanese engineering or handcrafted Swiss watches.
Singapore, in contrast, has become a nation of ones and zeros overnight, trafficking in information and ideas that travel silently over cables buried in the sea. Here, people's jobs can be so far removed from the end-product or service rendered that it can be easy to lose sight of what it is they are supposed to master.
It does not help, either, that being too close to concrete items here signals that you have not come far enough in life.
"The Confucian culture has always prized the Scholar over everything else," says Ms Haw.
"Given that we do not pay the electrician as well as we would pay the lawyer, there would be a stronger tendency for our materialistic society to not think of a skilled craftsman as an alternate definition of success."
Even so, Ms Haw believes that things are starting to change. Young people are beginning to enter the local hawker scene even when they have other options, for example. This could herald the start of the master trade craftsmen culture.
"You need to glorify, encourage acceptance and then suddenly societal norms change," Ms Haw says.
At the end of the day
But not everyone is meant to be a master craftsmen in the literal sense.
So, most cubicle dwellers are left to create their own kind of meaning and stave off the yawning abyss that is a Monday morning.
There is some hope in that area.
For example, James - the analyst with the jaundiced theory of why people stay late at the office - is in a better place now. While his previous managers had been fans of face-time, his current bosses judge him for the quality of his work, and not how late he stays in the office.
"Senior management has to do more than just encourage reasonable work hours - the company should explicitly state that it will not view working long hours as a good thing," he says.
There is also more that employers can do. "Strong leaders create clarity and context for teams and individuals so that they understand the value their role brings to the organisation," says Karen Blal, regional director of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Develop Asia.
This is every bit as hard as it sounds.
"I have found that managing people's expectations and motivations is probably the most challenging daily task I have," says Ademco Security Group's Mr Koh.
Over the long term, it will be a tall order to fix the fractured relationship between workers and their work, but if we increasingly treat this as a societal problem rather than just a Singapore employee issue, we might see progress.
We may never leave work at 6pm on the dot, but in time, we will hopefully get more out of the hours that we do put in.