Opinion

How are Long Hours at Work Affecting Singaporeans and What Can be Done to Help?

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Joanne Poh

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Working long hours has become a fact of life in Singapore. We’re no longer surprised when we come out on top of surveys ranking countries by the number of hours worked.

That said, not all jobs are created equal, and Singaporeans who leave the office at 6pm on the dot every day do exist.

On the other side of the coin, there’s a good number of people who work disproportionately long hours. While a recent Forbes report claimed millennials in Singapore work an average of 48 hours a week—if you don’t count an hour-long lunch break, that’s the equivalent of working from 9am to 7:30pm from Monday to Friday—there are many professions where it’s common for employees to work significantly longer hours on regular basis.

A recent news report shed light on certain professions that are known for working their employees to the bone. If you thought being stuck at the office till 8pm was bad, there are people in some jobs who routinely stay back much, much later.

I spoke with a bunch of people in professions notorious for long hours—finance, law, teaching and accounting, to name a few, and here’s what they had to say.

 

Many report that long hours make them work less productively

One thing almost everyone agreed upon was that their long working hours made them less productive.

Just because you’re in the office for 14 hours a day doesn’t mean you’re necessarily working intensely for all that time. You might be able to pull off 14 hours of intense work for a few weeks, but after a while you start to burn out. It’s normal, you’re not a machine.

Nigel, a 31-year-old lawyer, whose job has seen him regularly working till midnight and beyond, says that although he can usually squeeze in 8 to 10 hours of productive work into a day, he tends to be at the office for a minimum of 11 hours per day, and often as much as 16.

Where does the extra time go? He often goes out for dinner with colleagues or for a quick drink with friends. While this makes his working day even longer, he says he needs a break to cope with the workload.

“I know I could leave an hour or two earlier if I just stayed at the office all the way, but when your working hours extend beyond a certain point, you need human interaction and some down time to cope,” he says.

He adds, “Beyond a certain point, you just get too tired and your productivity takes a dive. When you do this for long periods, you often lose interest in what you are doing, which is beneficial neither for the client nor the firm. You soldier on because the money is good. But the burnout comes fairly quickly which is why many lawyers leave practice in 3 to 5 years.”

Juliana, a 36-year-old client service rep at a European bank, usually works from 9am to 8pm, but can be at the office until 10pm or 11pm during busy periods. Despite the fact that she spends at least 10 hours at work each day (not counting her hour-long lunch break), she says she spends a maximum of 7 hours being active and productive, and would prefer it if her employer would cap the number of working hours at 7 per day, enabling employees to start later at 10am.

 

Long hours at work take a heavy toll on health and personal lives

The government has been getting quite concerned about the high rate of lifestyle-related ailments such as diabetes, which is why we’ve been given ActiveSG credits and there are fitness corners, cheap gym facilities and public pools everywhere. Which is great.

Except that people who work very long hours never have time to use these facilities anyway. Almost everybody who routinely works very long hours seems to be of the opinion that work affects their health negatively.

Yasmin, a 32-year-old Vice President at a European bank, works from at least 9am to 8pm every day but often stays till as late as 11pm, in addition to working on weekends a few times a month.

She believes her work has had an impact on her life outside of the office. “When I get home, I’m too tired to want to communicate with my family members, and am grumpier and more easily irritated. I typically work through dinner time, and only eat dinner when I get home late at night. Occasionally I have gastric problems.”

In addition to having late dinners, she also hardly exercises. “My current schedule makes it tough for me to fit in any regular exercise.” She used to have a gym membership but let it lapse when she realised she could go months without having the time to work out.

She acknowledges that she works too hard right now but is hoping her hours will be shortened when a new deputy is trained at her company later this year.

For Nigel, his health isn’t the only thing that has suffered. Working long hours has taken a toll on his personal life, too.

He says, “Ever since I started working, I have lost touch with many friends and have had no time for myself or for my hobbies. Sleep and food cycles are often affected so my health has suffered and I have gained weight. I have no time for a relationship either.”

 

A lot can be done to help employees cope, but many employers don’t seem to be listening

While employers might shake their heads and insist nothing can be done to help their employees cope with their heavy workloads, it’s clear the latter disagree.

Virtually all my friends who work long hours have been very forthcoming with possible solutions that might enable them to finish their daily tasks in a shorter amount of time.

The first solutions many suggest are, naturally, flexi hours and telecommuting. While this may not be 100% possible in many industries, it is an option that many feel is under-utilised due to the need to be at work at 9am daily.

For Yasmin, working at the office actually lowers her productivity. “My day gets interrupted by many meetings and calls, and some people call for meetings at the last minute. This means I have to do a single task piece-meal at various times of the day due to disruptions from meetings and calls. I am more productive when I work from home because I can control the disturbances I would otherwise receive at work.”

She also thinks she would be able to finish all her work if working hours were shortened, as counterintuitive as it might sound.

“I think with shorter working hours, people would be less inclined to schedule so many meetings, most of which are useless anyway. Overall the working culture would be more effective in encouraging people to work productively.”

For Nigel, his long hours are largely the fault of his bosses. Having worked at several firms throughout his career, he feels that his working hours are reduced when he works for partners who manage their workload well, rather than throwing things on his desk at the last minute because they forgot about it.

(Names have been changed to protect the identify of respondents.)

If you habitually work long hours, how has it affected your life and what can be done to help you cope? 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.