The upcoming launch of a citizens' panel on improving work-life harmony is lent a measure of urgency by recent data from the Manpower Ministry showing that in 2017, Singaporeans worked an average of 45.1 hours per week, or 2,345.2 hours that year. This figure is higher than that in places characterised by their exacting overtime culture, such as Japan and South Korea, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). While long working hours might have been a necessity when East Asian nations went into overdrive to catch up economically with the developed world, these same countries need to moderate the pace of work to build sustainable societies today.
At the end of the day, societies have to be mindful about how to pursue growth, especially if it leaves families neglected and adults at the risk of karoshi, the Japanese word for death from overwork. While Singapore has been spared the worst of such dislocations, it needs to plan its own transition to a work culture that also protects society better by protecting the family in the first place. To do so would require a genuine shift in attitude among both employers and employees. The former must understand - many employers do, but not all - that raw time spent at work does not equate with productivity. What matters is how well that time is used, how far it contributes to a firm's addition of value to a product, and how employees return to work refreshed and reinvigorated by sufficient time for rest. A human's capacity for productive labour is not infinite. But that capacity can advance a company's long-term interests if it is not stretched to its limits day after day. Flexible arrangements, wherever feasible, offer a family-friendly alternative to rigid laws of work.