Why do Singaporeans Work Such Long Hours?

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Joanne Poh



If the news stories are to be believed, Singaporean workers are disengaged and unproductive, a problem which supposedly costs the economy $6 billion per year. This is not to say that they don’t spend a lot of time at work, though.

In fact, Singaporean workers reportedly work the longest hours in the world. Based on their lower productivity levels this means they’re either doing the same amount or even less in a longer amount of time than their counterparts in other countries.

A recent International Labour Office Report shows that increased output (ie. longer working hours) actually decreases the amount of labour output per hour. On the other hand, increased workplace flexibility makes workers more productive because they experience less negative spillover into their lives, and happy workers are more productive.

In fact, the Economist has published a nice little graph illustrating the relationship between the number of hours worked and productivity.


Given these findings, it’s actually a no brainer that Singapore’s rigid work environment with its long hours has produced incredibly unproductive workers.

So, why do Singaporeans work such long hours when it makes them even less productive? Here are four big reasons.


Bosses are still obsessed with face time

No matter what your boss might say, an overwhelming majority of Singaporeans say they feel “obliged” to work late. Based on the years I’ve spent working in various offices, I have to say that this has been true in my experience—not only because of workers’ perception, but the attitudes of their bosses.

At one of the law firms I worked at, lawyers generally tried to leave discreetly if they knocked off before the boss, fearing that they would leave a bad impression if they were caught, never mind that they had finished all their work. On the flip side, it was not uncommon to hear bosses complaining that an employee had already left the office. Some bosses also tended to speak unfavourably of workers who were away on annual leave or maternity leave.

At another firm, trainees in a certain department were reportedly told that they were expected to sit around in the office until at least 8:30pm even if they had finished their work, just in case anything urgent came in (the official working hours were from 9 to 6).

In general, there was much talk about “putting in the hours”, which we as employees found perplexing, as we were of the opinion that the main consideration should be whether the work could get done, not putting in the hours just for the sake of it.

A 2012 survey seems to corroborate these observations. Employees who chose to work from home were found to be more likely to forgo positive reviews, even if their work was good.


Workers are overburdened

The labour market in Singapore is extremely tight at the moment, meaning employees can afford to pick and choose which companies to work for. This also means that SMEs get the shorter end of the stick as qualified workers flock to MNCs.

The upshot is that employees at SMEs tend to be greatly overburdened as employers make up for the lack of manpower by expecting their existing employees to do more work than they can handle.

In fact, 6 out of 10 employees in Singapore claim they are overworked.

When workers are overburdened and yet are unable to raise their productivity levels due to long working hours, that can only spell disaster for the companies involved.

If Singapore is serious about raising productivity, firms need to rethink their HR policies.


Employees have little incentive to be productive

With most Singapore employees feeling pretty damn unhappy, it’s not hard to see why they’re not exactly leaping up with enthusiasm in a bid to raise their productivity. Long coffee breaks and long lunches are not uncommon, and everyone has that colleague who spends the entire day staring at his smartphone and then scrambles to finish his work when night falls.

But that’s not the only reason Singaporeans stay late in the office.

As bosses expect employees to stay late in the office, employees don’t have much incentive to do their work efficiently. In fact, many employees just work as slowly as possible since they’re stuck at the office until their boss leaves anyway.

At one of my previous workplaces, employees could be seen strolling around the office at all hours of the day, deeply immersed in gossip. Many of these employees then stayed back in the office until at late as 10pm, slowly finishing up their work.

If everyone around them was packing up and leaving at 6 on the dot, things might have been different.

Do you work long hours? Tell us why in the comments!

Image Credits:
Stefano Campolo

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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.

  • Tom Dickson

    Perhaps a good answer could be found in the YouTube video titled:”JFK till 911 It is all a rich man’s trick.” This video is about 3 hours, but just watch the last quarter of this video, and it perhaps gives some good reasons why people work very hard.

  • Don Liu

    Why Singaporeans work long hours is embedded in a system of FEAR !. It is the entire social and business system that is less than business best practices. There are many factors which cannot be explained in just a few words. This had evolved over generations. So sad !

    • Anon

      Very true! Even when working in an MNC which is lauded for world class best practices it is the local culture which has the most effect.

      For all the “corporate mantra” about working smart and not just hard you get people passing remarks about how so and so is so idle they can leave at 6 on the dot, and being given negative reviews for being “undedicated”

      Never mind that not taking 2 hours for lunch and walking around to spend 15 minutes of every hour gossiping about how “overworked” and “stressed out” they are would give them an extra 3 hours a day at least so they don’t “have to work till 8 or 10 every day”.

      End of the day, Singapore is all about face time and living in the office as a second home and not about how much work employees actually get through.

  • working hard is the best way to earn a money, many of us spend a long hour to increase our incoming salary. it is for our future and for our family, sometimes i think that getting a job to another country is a good decision but this time its very hard to get a Employment pass service you have to wait for months almost a year for the approval of your request.

  • Dr Ed

    I agree. Every minute wasted just to “show” your boss you are hardworking is a minute wasted for other developments in life like self-education, self-improvement or simply rest for a more productive day. It stifles creativity because we know a lot of innovation starts at home away from routine paperwork bosses give you to make sure you stay longer at work. We only have 24 hours a day. I have lived overseas in Australia many years and I used to think these Aussies are so lazy, they finish work early and always on leave. However, they are also very productive at work and often when they are home, they have other “jobs” like DJ’ing, run a part-time business, a professional athlete, a part-time post-grad student or just spend quality time being a parent. The work place flexibility gives people these motivation (and time) to live fulfilling lives. There are too many “boxes” in Singapore people have to conform to, often it’s either full time or no time. Take the education sector for example, even though the local Singapore universities are highly ranked based on the traditional criteria, but part time or online courses are far and few between. When I was looking for a part-time Masters course to upgrade myself, I struggled to find one in Singapore. In fact I had to sign up to one in Australia. Flexibilty in work place and education gives people the opportunity to be more productive, take for example, a parent of 2 children could work from home and look after the kids at the same time, with the option of upgrading her skills with a part-time online course. Sure, we would all like to study full-time in face to face institution, but who is going to pay for the bills and look after the kids? But having said that, even though face to face classes have their advantages, they are not very productive use of people’s time, not to mention inflexible. We don’t all fit into defined “boxes”, even the clothes we wear have different sizes and designs, so do our diverse lives.

  • Quantum

    Even at home they are still working sending emails.

  • rose cao

    In my company, bosses do not expect us to stay late, but they do expect us to bring laptop home in case of any urgency as we only have 3 buses drive out to mrt which from 5.15 to 6.45pm. So the latest you can work is 6.45 pm.

  • Leela

    Hi Joanne. This is why I hate working here. I am desperate to get out of this corporate culture. I see that you are a freelance writer. Hence, please, please do an article on freelance jobs that pay well in Singapore. Readers like me would appreciate it. Thank you.

  • Sally Chuah

    So true…
    The paper work is way too much… it will not help on work but to decrease the overall productivity