From next year, all 82,000 civil servants can take one day of leave every year to volunteer in a charity.
The civil service is the largest employer in Singapore and this move translates to a whopping 656,000 hours of volunteer time, or the equivalent of around 350 full-time volunteers, a year.
Given that the social service sector has only about 1,400 accredited professionals such as social workers, 350 additional pairs of hands would help immensely with the manpower crunch. While this move shows the Government is walking the talk, its impact could be more symbolic than significant if certain barriers to leave usage are not addressed.
Since as early as 15 years ago, banks and other large corporations have been offering one to five days of paid volunteer leave. But at 10 companies polled by The Straits Times two years ago, the take-up rates were dismal. Some had rates of 2 per cent to 4 per cent; even the one with the best response had only 28 per cent. One key reason for this, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre said then, was that some employees feared their supervisor would not be supportive or co-workers might not be happy covering for them when they use the leave.
In a work-oriented culture, mindset changes will take time. To set the tone, management at the highest levels must be seen to use the leave first. Some banks here even make community work part of staff performance objectives.
Besides barriers to using the leave, there is also the risk of what the Chinese call "yue bang yue mang", or "the more one tries to help, the more trouble one creates". Social workers often have to squeeze out time from their casework to train and guide clueless volunteers. Having only one day of volunteer leave means the staff have to do this time and time again. Just give us money instead, some cash-strapped charities would cry.
Challenges aside, extending volunteer leave is worth a shot. It may be just one day of exposure but, hopefully, that is enough to whet employees' appetite for volunteerism and for them to go back for more.