3 Reasons Working Long Hours Might Actually Hurt Productivity


Joanne Poh



Singaporean employers have a reputation for treating their employees like a sponge—they try to squeeze every last drop out of them. I’ve had friends whose workloads suddenly doubled overnight when management decided that a good way to cut costs was just to fire half the employees and have the rest take on their workload, never mind if it meant they were at their desks till midnight every day.

Others signed employment contracts stating that official working hours were from 9 to 6, only to realise that they were expected to take on an unreasonable workload that it wouldn’t be humanly possible to finish by 6, no matter how skilled the employee.

Well, if Singapore’s poor showing in productivity surveys is anything to go by, those excessive hours at work might actually be hurting companies in the long run. Here’s a good reason pulling long hours is actually terrible for employers, even if they don’t realise it.


1. High employee  turnover

Excessive working hours lead to unhappy employees. No matter how much they like their jobs, if they’re not getting enough rest, feel disconnected from their family and friends because they have no time to see them and aren’t able to cultivate interests outside of work, they WILL get depressed no matter how exemplary they are on the job.

Employers are often lambasting Gen Y workers’ preoccupation with work-life balance. A recent survey of 6,000 Singapore undergrads revealed that work-life balance was their most important career goal. While employers are quick to point fingers at employees they perceive to be lazy, it could well be that present working hours are becoming way too long for many workers, leading to high employee turnover and widespread unhappiness at work, and that students are more likely to prize work-life balance precisely because it’s so elusive.

Worker turnover rate in Singapore is now higher than it’s been since 2009, and many workers have reported that work-life balance plays a huge role in their decision to leave their current companies. In fact, Singapore employees are according to a 2014 survey the unhappiest in the region. We have a feeling long working hours have a big part to play.

It’s no coincidence that Singaporean employees not only work some of the longest hours in the world, but are also some of the most frequent job hoppers. The average cost to a company of replacing a worker in a skilled or semi-skilled job has been estimated at 1.5 to 2.5 times their annual salary. Ouch.


2. Employees are too tired to do a good job

This Singaporean teacher reported working crazy 60 to 70 hour weeks despite being very efficient at work. Even the smartest and most passionate worker, when faced with such long hours, would be hard-pressed to do his best work.

A study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention showed that long hours made employees more tired and less alert, and also unable to perform cognitive tasks as well as usual. Such declines in performance began in the 9th hour of work in a day.

Employers weed out their employees based on who has the best qualifications and the most relevant experience, but then they end up squandering all that potential by working their employees to the point where they’re not able to perform.


3. Depressed employees are unproductive workers

Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion at work is a very real threat to the Singapore workforce, as evidenced by the skyrocketing numbers of young Singaporean workers suffering from depression and burnout, as reported by psychiatrists around the island. The biggest culprits of this phemenon are long working hours and excessive stress, with some of the employees surveyed by the Straits Times reportedly working 14 hours a day up to 7 days a week.

Depression not only leads to high levels of absenteeism and poorer performance at work, but also contributes to low employee morale, which in turn leads to higher turnover. A depressed worker simply cannot do good work. With more and more Singaporean workers complaining of unhappiness, it’s unsurprising that workers here are some of the world’s least engaged.

If Singapore is serious about pushing for productivity, it might be time to reexamine the way employees here are treated.

How do long working hours affect you as an employee? Tell us in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.