Long hours common for some professions in Singapore

Japan and South Korea battle entrenched mindsets as the younger generation pushes back against the overtime culture. The Straits Times takes a look at the situation in these countries and Singapore, and how some workers and firms are coping.

For litigation lawyer Ms Ho, 28, a typical work day begins at 9am. But there is no certainty over what time it ends.

Work could drag into the wee hours, and she is in her office till 2am or 3am when she has deadlines to meet.

"It's the nature of the work... we are rushing to meet the court's deadline," said the lawyer of five years.

She tries to get out of the office to exercise and have dinner with friends, in an attempt to achieve work-life balance. But often, she will soon be back at her desk with her nose in files.

Data from the Manpower Ministry shows that last year, Singaporeans clocked an average of 45.6 hours a week from January to September. The weekly average for the whole of 2015 was the same.

  • 45.6
    Average paid hours worked in a week per person in Singapore.

  • Source: Labour Market Survey, Ministry of Manpower

This means Singaporeans clock an average of 2,371.2 paid hours a year - a figure higher than that in places notorious for their overtime culture, such as Japan and South Korea.

To alleviate the situation, the Government has stepped in with funding and incentives to encourage companies to embrace a more flexible culture to help workers achieve work-life harmony.

For instance, companies are encouraged to allow employees to work from home on certain days, or work more hours on some days in exchange for time off on another weekday.

The hope is that such measures will improve employee engagement and satisfaction, leading to higher productivity and staff retention for firms.

But some professions have a tougher time implementing such initiatives due to the nature of the work, said National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

Front-line officers, for instance, need to be at their workplace and cannot work off site.

"For this group of people, it is even more important for flexible timing to be put offically in place. If they cannot work from home, can they be given a few hours off if they need to run errands?" she said.

Using school teachers as an example, Dr Straughan said: "If they have some free time during the day when they are not teaching, it should be fine for them to use that time to run errands and attend to matters.

"They should not have to stay in school the entire time if they are already clocking such long hours."

Teachers often start their day at around 6am and end only in the late afternoon or evening, as they juggle teaching and administrative duties like marking papers and organising activities.

It is up to companies to think up creative strategies and policies to help their employees maintain work-life harmony, Dr Straughan added.

For Ms Ho (who declined to give her full name), while she enjoys the challenges of her job, she acknowledged her work hours are not sustainable in the long term.

"Many of my peers are of the view that if we want to lead a healthier lifestyle, the best way may be to leave the profession altogether," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline Long hours common for some professions in Singapore. Subscribe