“Despite statistics from the Ministry of Manpower showing that the number of working hours here has been on a steady decline in general since at least 2010, Singapore workers remain among the hardest working in the world” (The Big Read: Breaking Singapore’s Workaholic Culture, Louisa Tang).
An understanding of Singapore’s workaholic culture – given that “Singapore residents in 2015 worked the second longest week in developed cities around the world” (TODAY, Dec. 22) – is not complete without examining the influence of a competitive education system and the role of older employers in perpetuating the need for long work hours, reflected in instances when calls for a better work-life balance is ridiculed as younger workers being demanding or mollycoddled. And because has been established that the long work hours in Singapore compare poorly to the hours of workers from other countries and that blue-collar Singaporean workers still work the longest hours, attempts to improve the status quo ought to focus on the root of these problems.
“Culture” appears to be a catch-all explanation used frequently by employers and companies to justify these long hours, without a concurrent evaluation of whether head counts could be increased (to understand whether workers are able to shoulder prescribed roles and responsibilities in the first place) and whether productivity can be improved (to evaluate systems and processes). In describing the the cultural practices, the quoted employers pointed to long lunches and collegiality, “presenteeism”, and the persistence of practices beyond peak periods, yet few considered their complicity. One employer also expressed surprise that an intern of his refused to leave earlier despite his insistence, without fully understanding pressures that employees face.
And in addition to the predilection for employers to persist with approaches in the past – given the risks associated with disassociation from conventions – and with employment further perceived as an extension of education, the stresses and long hours that students are subject to are part of the challenge too. Against this background, the aforementioned systemic problems of productivity (or lack thereof) and “culture” are oftentimes overlooked, and individuals are instead expected to make their own accommodations: Shorter breaks, shorter meal times. Fresh graduates who are used to working through late nights or rushing to complete assignments may not necessarily have healthy reference points for their school and workplace environments.
A good start, in this vein, would be showcasing bosses who value work-life balance and who make arrangements work. Even more broadly, it is important to hear the experiences of employees and to determine if unhealthy practices have been normalised.