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Employees, get a life

Outside work, that is. Your work will be better for it.


A FRIEND shared with a group of us a while back that she has been feeling stretched and worn out at work for the past few months. When I asked if she was getting burnt out, she thought for awhile before responding. "Well. Not exact burnt - but more like browning."

We all had a good laugh, but her description left an impression on me.

Surely all employees can identify with that at some point in their careers. You know, that feeling when the heat is on and we are hanging on for dear life, trying not to combust into flames.

In today's economy where disruptions come fast and furious, such pressure-cooker environments seem to be the new normal, with the added stress of job insecurity and additional workload from a reduced headcount.

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But while it seems that the solution to this is to work harder and longer hours to prove your worth, studies have shown that this has quite the opposite effect on productivity and creativity.

High-flying business leaders share how going the extra mile at work can also be synonymous with having a fulfilling life outside it.

The myth of 'busyness'

Desiring a life outside work is sometimes frowned upon and regarded as a sign of sloth, simply because a strong work ethic has been deeply ingrained into the Singaporean psyche since its inception.

In certain workplaces, there is an increasing glorification of "busyness" where workers buy into the culture where the busier they seem, the more important they are to the organisation.

Princess Gerona, head of human resources, QBE Singapore explains: "Part of the problem is that constantly being busy, always on call and spending long hours at work are still seen as a badge of honour for some. And unfortunately, those who seek a balanced lifestyle are sometimes seen to be less committed. This is an outdated view from our perspective."

But attitudes have been slow to change. In fact, some from the older generation view these changes as a threat that they have to guard against.

Claire Smart, head of human resources South-east Asia, Randstad says that these people may have always prioritised their work over personal life, and expect others to do the same.

"These values and expectations set for themselves are then used to judge others, labelling those who aren't aligned to these values as lazy and entitled," she pointed out.

The rise of flexi-work has also been a double-edged sword. Ms Smart observed that work-life integration may have paved the way for employees to better manage their work and personal lives, but it has also led to an expectation that workers should always be instantly and constantly available.

So when an employee doesn't respond after work hours or during weekends, it is sometimes viewed negatively by bosses, even if the matter is not of any particular urgency.

Having a life is not having it all

In a workplace with a workaholic culture, it is up to the individual to make it happen.

Femke Hellemons, country manager, Adecco says: "One way to debunk the myth is by demonstrating that one is capable of managing his or her own time at work and delivering the quality output that's required."

A tip she has for workers is to focus and set their minds on work when they are in the office to get as much done as possible, so that they leave on time to explore a life outside of work. This will also ensure they come back refreshed and motivated, she says.

Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing director of TSMP Law Corporation says that taking time out to pursue activities outside work has, in fact, helped her become a better lawyer.

"As a managing partner in a law firm, I also need to be the ambassador of my company. You can't do that effectively if you've been locked away for 14 hours a day grinding through documents. You certainly can't do anyone any good if you're one email from a meltdown."

While she certainly has her plate full with multiple roles as a lawyer, business owner, mother and wife, she is not letting it stand in the way of living a full life.

She says: "I'm in a wonderful relationship with my husband, am very close to my son, active socially, work insane hours, do a lot of business development, have time to volunteer in charities and still manage to work in some 'me' time.

But there have been family holidays I've cancelled, social gatherings I've missed, and any number of parent-teacher meetings I've not had time for."

A holistic life may be important, but "having it all" in life does not mean having what you want all the time. It is inevitable that some trade-offs have to be made, and Mrs Yuen Thio's advice for employees is to communicate and show mutual accountability to their direct bosses.

This entails not just explaining their problems to superiors, but taking ownership of it and coming up with a solution.

If you need to leave early on certain days to take a class for example, she says, tell your boss in advance and say that you will clear your schedule for the following day and will make sure the work is done. Employers appreciate such proactive management as it demonstrates leadership and a sense of team spirit.

Mrs Yuen Thio says: "What is disappointing is an employee who, without thinking about the workload of the rest of the team, just ups and leaves at 5.30 because it's 'knock-off time'."

She believes that most employers are reasonable and recognise that it is against the company's long-term interest to alienate and burn-out staff.

So if it isn't clear by now, employees can mean business at work, and yet take their time out seriously as well.

In less enlightened workplaces, the fear of leaving a bad impression is very real. But if you are able to repeatedly add value to your work without becoming a permanent fixture in the office, your bosses will respect you even more for it.

In a world where everyone blends in, it's not such a bad thing to stand out.

It's 2017 - there is really no need to creep out of the office feeling guilty when you are done for the day.

Mrs Yuen Thio adds: "Professionals and business people, at the top of their game, don't need to score points by clocking hours; they're judged based on their work performance."