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Chasing the weekend

We've lost our weekends, but maybe they were never ours to lose

In the first edition, the Brunch feature will explore the concept of a weekend, and how our relationship with our two favourite days of the week has changed.


In imperial China's Han dynasty, officials of the Chinese empire were entitled by law to a day off every five days. This was nominally for them to take a bath and wash their hair, but to bathe or not to bathe was up to the individual officer's compunctions.

Bertrand Russell once argued for a four-hour work day. Such a set-up, he said, would bring "happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia".

IF you are hunched over a laptop instead of reclining in a hammock this weekend, you are not alone in your toil. Our weekends, it appears, are under siege. Beset on all fronts by urgent work, industriousness and a rash of smartphones, the hapless weekend looks set to go the way of the dodo. Most working stiffs have resigned themselves to work spilling over into Saturdays and Sundays, The Business Times found when it spoke to top executives and professionals. Some even go as far as saving major work for the weekend - a move familiar to anyone exposed to the cacophonous perdition of an open-plan office.

What gives? Apart from a myocardial infarction or two, that is.

In Singapore, the usual arrangement is to work in the office from Monday to Friday, but remain thereafter at the mercy of a pantheon of demigods known as "clients" and "superiors".

"I'll do work if that's what is required. It is just another day to get work done, the only difference is I can wear shorts doing it," says Victor Ng, CEO of women's healthcare group Singapore O&G.

This is not just a sign of the times, for Singapore has long been leery of an all-out weekend.

Up till just 12 years ago, Saturday was still considered a half working day in Singapore. In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that the civil service, schools and military camps would move to a five-day work week.

Before that, a weekend in all its full two-day glory was considered an economic perk that Singapore could ill afford. For corporate Singapore today, it still is.

"More professionals are working on weekends mainly because they are overloaded and spread very thinly at work," says Linda Teo, country manager at ManpowerGroup Singapore.

"With the sluggish economy, companies are operating on leaner headcounts, leaving employees to take on multiple roles to keep costs down."

The extent of work done on weekends tends to vary by occupation, BT's poll of executives found.

Those in analytical roles seemed better able to keep away from work. Investors and venture capitalists also reported a decent level of autonomy.

At the other end of the spectrum, lawyers sounded the most sanguine about working on the weekends. Those in finance also said they may socialise with clients or simply make themselves available then.

"I try to keep the weekend clear because it's not sustainable to work non-stop," says Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing director at law firm TSMP.

"But if it can't wait till Monday, my policy is: Don't whine. Just Do It. Saturday will come around again; the client might not."

The Ministry of Manpower does not explicitly set aside Saturday and Sunday as no-work days, according to its website. It does say that for "common work arrangements" involving five or more days of work a week, the contractual work hours are up to eight hours per day or 44 hours a week.

That works out to an auspicious-sounding 8.8-hour daily average, based on a five-day work week.

It is also rather utopian-sounding, given that 52 per cent of employees here work more than 44 hours a week, according to research by recruitment firm Randstad Singapore.

If it is any consolation, the notion of five days of work and two of rest is an entirely human construct, and a fairly modern one at that.

In imperial China's Han dynasty, officials of the Chinese empire were entitled by law to a day off every five days. This was nominally for them to take a bath and wash their hair, but to bathe or not to bathe was up to the individual officer's compunctions. During the Shang dynasty, which preceded the Han, weeks lasted 10 days. It is hoped that officials used at least one of those days to wash behind their ears.

In Europe, the French Revolution also used a calendar of 10-day weeks, with only one day of rest per week. Each such period was called a décade, and must have felt like one.

The magic number

Despite a common belief that the source of the seven-day week is Judaic, historians think the concept of a recurring seven-day period can be traced through Western and Middle Eastern civilisation as far back as Sumeria.

The Sumerians believed seven was a perfect number, and the epic of Gilgamesh mentions seven-day periods.

In South-east Asia, things were rather different. For instance, at one point in Java's history, "no fewer than six weeks existed" simultaneously and "all of different lengths (seven, three, five, six, eight or nine days)", wrote French scholar Denys Lombard.

Traders later brought the seven-day calendar to South-east Asia. "Our seven-day week and two days off… is based in 'colonial time'," Timothy Barnard, a professor at the National University of Singapore's history department, tells BT.

"Whatever was the accepted week, and work format, in the West was adopted here. The British colonial regime copied it, and enforced it."

A 1991 article in The Atlantic says that the earliest recorded use of the word "weekend" was in 1879, in an English magazine called Notes and Queries. Notably, Saturday was still a half-day then, and the pace of its promotion to full-fledged weekend status was glacial.

In 1908, a factory in America began to give workers Saturday off in addition to Sunday. This was mainly to accommodate Jewish workers' observance of the sabbath.

More than a decade later, industrialist Henry Ford moved his factories to a five-day work week in the 1920s, and by the Great Depression in the 1930s, the shortened work week was cemented, another Atlantic story in 2014 notes.

Our two favourite days of the week

For all the work that is creeping into the weekend, most people who spoke to BT still treasure their two days off. When asked what word they associated most with the weekend, nearly all the responses revolved around sleep, rest, family ("fun-mily", said one), and recreation. These tend to translate into a handful of national pastimes: food, ferrying the kids to tuition and shopping.

Mapletree Commercial Trust's VivoCity shopping mall, the largest one in town, gets 30-40 per cent more shopper traffic on weekends than on weekdays, a spokeswoman tells BT.

If traffic on the Causeway is any indicator, weekends are also prime time for leaving the country.

In 1892, the first local mention of the weekend appeared in The Straits Times. There, it is noted in an article that a "week-end" holiday falling on a Monday or Saturday is preferred, "because then time is allowed for leaving town". Plus ça change.

Weekends are more than the mere absence of labour. If they are kept work-free, they actually bring health and happiness.

"From construction labourers and secretaries to physicians and lawyers, people experience better moods, greater vitality, and fewer aches and pains from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon," a 2010 study by the University of Rochester finds.

"Far from frivolous, the relatively unfettered time on weekends provides critical opportunities for bonding with others, exploring interests and relaxing - basic psychological needs that people should be careful not to crowd out with overwork," the study's author, Richard Ryan, says.

Even the rate of heart attacks is lowest on weekends. It jumps significantly on Mondays and eases back down on Tuesdays, the New York Times reported in 2006.

Work appears to also take a cumulative toll on the heart. A study published earlier this year found that among full-time employees, the risk of a heart attack rose 1 per cent for every extra hour worked a week over 10 or more years.

In 2014, people in Singapore worked an average of 2,262 hours, according to data from the University of Groningen. That was higher than in any of the then-34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).Being first in everything can be overrated. Singaporeans also have a higher prevalence of coronary artery disease, hypertension, and diabetes - medical conditions that put them at greater risk of heart failure - than their Asian peers.

From five to four? Pshaw.

One of the most prominent proposals to preserve the sanctity of the weekend has been to lengthen it. Alex Williams, a sociology lecturer in London, argues in an article that longer weekends could help us to "future-proof our economy" and reduce our impact on the environment.

The US state of Utah, for instance, saved at least US$1.8 million in energy costs in the first 10 months after it lopped Friday off state employees' working week, compressing work into longer durations over four days, Mr Williams notes.

Several companies in the US have also started to report benefits from offering four-day work weeks, though these firms say good planning is needed for it to succeed.

"A flexible or shorter work week is about finding life-work balance. A 'happier' worker should be a more productive worker. Well, I am," CIMB economist Song Seng Wun says.

"Furthermore, from the policy makers' standpoint, a 'happier' couple may be more 'productive' in other ways. Ahem."

Venture capitalist Eugene Wong, who runs Sirius Capital, has already taken to lengthening his weekends. While Mr Wong used to work over the weekend, the pendulum has swung the other way for him: "These days, I extend my weekend to Mondays. On Mondays, I take time to be with myself. It's my 'me time' to meditate and reflect."

Even so, the greatest obstacle to cutting back on hours in Singapore appears to be, well, Singapore. UOB economist Francis Tan says he has been tinkering with the idea of letting office workers start work at 8am and leave at 1pm every day "for a few years already… But everyone I spoke to tells me it's crazy, GDP down lah, etc. But I am sure productivity will go up."

Where the four-day work week is concerned, some flag a latent danger of reclining so much that workers end up unable to extract themselves from their couches.

"What happens if it's further reduced to a three-day week?" Mr Tan wonders. "Is it going to be an inverted-U curve where the reduction of working hours improve productivity to a certain point and then once past certain hours, make people more lazy and less productive?"

Chan Chong Beng, CEO of wallpaper company Goodrich Global, says the business community here is "not ready" for a four-day work week, which he worries may take a toll on productivity and profitability.

Even in the food and beverage industry where business booms on weekends, employers are lukewarm to the idea. A four-day work week would make it "very difficult" to conduct business, says Adrin Loi, executive chairman of kaya toast chain Ya Kun. The company operates seven days a week from 9am to 9pm, and already needs two shifts to rotate its staff, he notes.

Some also argue that there is no restriction against rest and relaxation on days of the week that do not begin with 'S'.

Lyn Lee, founder of cake chain Awfully Chocolate, frequently works weekends herself.

"It is too limiting and short-sighted to say, you only live the right kind of life if you don't work weekends, the same way people shut themselves deeper into small boxes when they eliminate opportunities which require shift work, overseas postings or working in places further from home," she says.

"But as our society gets more comfortable, so do people's desires. One just hopes these don't all make us too conventional and lazy and boring!"

Still, there's something to be said for keeping those two particular days free - if that happens to coincide with when your family and friends are off work or school. As it turns out, the happiness boost from weekends comes mainly from the social contact that Saturdays and Sundays afford, even for the unemployed, Stanford researchers found in 2014.

"The weekend is not just about having time off work - it is something much more than that… People who spend weekends alone get very little of the boost in emotional well-being," says study co-author Cristobal Young. "On Saturday and Sunday, other people are available to spend time with."

Transparent dangling carrot

You might think a four-day work week radical, but the philosopher Bertrand Russell once argued for a four-hour work day. Such a set-up, he said, would bring "happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia". It must mean something that happiness is a concept so entwined with the idea of working less.

The pursuit of happiness, as it happens, is an unalienable right in the United States Declaration of Independence. This is sometimes confused with an actual right to happiness, when all it means is that you are free to chase it.

In a way, it is the same with weekends, which were perhaps always meant to be pursued rather than possessed.

The weekend is less of a distinct block of time, and more of a gossamer web of wishful thinking. It is the mystery novel you will finish, the mojito you will drink, the picnic you will have.

As we plod through the week, these plans shimmer in the future tense, just out of reach. Sometimes they materialise, only to end too soon. Other times, they're obliterated by spreadsheets, conference calls and sheer inertia.

But when Monday comes around again, there the weekend beckons too, a perpetual mirage. And so, on we plod.

Q: What word do you associate most with weekends?


Adrian Tan, partner at Morgan Lewis Stamford


Passed out from a punishing week. Or lying in with a good book. Or my hunk of a husband.

Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing director, TSMP Law Corporation


Victor Ng, CEO of SOG


Mak Yuen Teen, associate professor at NUS Business School


Chew Sutat, head of equities and fixed income, SGX

Freedom. Usually no appointments, no schedule and basically free to do what I really want to do.

Euston Quah, economics professor at NTU

Sleep! Or "Chauffeur". I'm usually on driving duty to shuttle the family around town.

Adrian Chan, partner at Lee & Lee

Time for friends, family and myself. Complete break from the week.

Evrard Bordier, CEO of Swiss private bank Bordier & Cie Singapore

Q: What's your policy on doing work on weekends, and why?

I save up all my important work to do over the weekend. That is the only time I am able to read, understand, and write anything useful.
Adrian Tan, partner at Morgan Lewis Stamford

I am very conscious of creating work for others so I make it a practice not to send out any emails from Friday night till Sunday evening.

Saw Ken Wye, CEO of CrimsonLogic

Because I'm in a family business and we're a business family, there is little differentiation between work and fun. The only difference is that on weekends I catch up with work which takes some more quiet time to muse over.

Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman, Banyan Tree

I will not attend to day-to-day business matters on weekends. To do that means I have not been effective during the work week.

Helen Ng, Chair of Self-Storage Association

It's all about balance. There may be some decisions that can wait, but invariably there will be others that cannot.

Tan Boon Khai, CEO of Singapore Land Authority

I used to work over the weekends but that has changed. Now, I refrain from working and do not schedule any meetings or business entertainment.

Eugene Wong, Sirius Capital