Hard for many to unplug from work after leaving office

RESEARCH agency employee Cheong Poh never quite signs off when she leaves the office.

She regularly checks work-related e-mail after office hours on most days, as well as on weekends and sometimes even while on holiday.

Ms Cheong, a programme coordinator, believes staying connected all the time in today's wired world is unavoidable and, anyway, she would rather deal with e-mail at her convenience than get anxious over possible lapses or missed opportunities. "It's about responsibility, about ownership," says Ms Cheong, 30.

She is not alone in Singapore, where 32 per cent of employees find it hard to let go of work while on holiday, and 51 per cent say their boss expects them to stay contactable, a study by Randstad Workmonitor research found.

The online poll of 400 also found that greater connectivity through data roaming and gadgets such as smartphones has made it increasingly difficult for employees to get away from the office.

Singapore emerges from the poll as one of the worst countries in the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to ditching the stress of the job. Only employees in Japan (44 per cent) and Malaysia (36 per cent) are more likely to take their work with them. China is the most relaxed, with only 15 per cent of employees taking work home; Hong Kong is next with 19 per cent.

"Singapore employees are also known to have a strong work ethic, and are often motivated by money and career progression. This can often translate into working long hours to achieve their career goals, which makes it harder to switch off once they leave the office," said Mr Michael Smith, Randstad's Singapore director.

The Straits Times carried out a similar online survey that polled 1,619 people. About 61 per said they responded to office mail on the go, 30 per cent received more than 50 work-related mail messages a day, while 42 per cent admitted they replied to office mail while on holiday. Nearly 30 per cent said their office expected them to stay connected.

"We are exceptionally connected with smartphones, iPads, Google Map, e-mails and messaging apps. The work comes with the turf in such an IT-savvy world," says Mr R. Rajakanth, the executive director of a non-profit firm, who tries to balance family life with the demands of his job.

Mr Rajakanth, 40, has found a middle way. He is on project in Thailand and chose to take his family. He dedicated the first week entirely to the job, before spending time with his wife and three children, who are on holiday from school.

"We have our private moments," he said. "Work drops into your phone, but families need to strike a balance."

Mr Darren Ang Chin Yang, 28, said deciding to stay connected is not a compulsion but a choice, to give a personal touch to the job.

The owner of fledgling event management firm Ground Up Productions said taking this approach is important as he does not have a large staff, but he would certainly hand over work if he had responsible and trustworthy assistants.

There was little disagreement among any of the professionals The Straits Times spoke to when it came to another conclusion of the Randstad study: that completely cutting yourself off from work during holidays can be more relaxing and rejuvenating.

"The purpose of taking a holiday is to get away from work and spend some carefree time and de-stress," said lawyer Chia Boon Teck, 50, a partner in law firm Chia Wong LLP, who cannot be separated from work on holidays.

"But if your personal attention is required, then the thought of not attending to it can cause you more stress than dealing with it," he noted.

Self-employed Apelles Poh has a better solution. The certified financial adviser, who answers only personal mail for an hour each morning while on holiday, feels people should be mindful and attentive when using their devices.

"Everyone is connected; you can't run away. But it is also important to live life and laugh much."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Hard for many to unplug from work after leaving office'. Subscribe