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The Risk of Mistaking Overworking for Productivity

Why are Singaporeans working such long hours? Managing director of Randstad, Jaya Dass, shares her insights and encourages management to take the lead in creating a culture of work-life balance.

Many clients that I’ve spoken with since the Circuit Breaker said that they saw better workforce productivity since working from home. Having employees work from home, however, is not the only factor driving productivity for organisations during these unusual times.

New investments in digital tools such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence have eliminated administrative hours, allowing employees to focus on more impactful work. Digital software like project management and real-time databases have also made it easier for people to collaborate remotely and track productivity.

So, why is it that 16% of 3,003 respondents in our 2021 Employer Brand Research said that they worked longer hours in 2020? It also stood out to me that more Singapore-based workers reported longer working hours than in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Why are Singaporeans working such long hours? 

As a city-state, it is also safe to say that Singaporeans are the least travelled residents in 2020 due to border lockdowns. With just 738km2 of land space, there are very limited areas to explore compared to bigger countries like Australia and the US.

So, what do Singaporeans’ do with all the free time they have? They work.

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I am guilty of it myself. I sometimes turn on my laptop before I go to bed to schedule emails for the next day. But we all know that it’s never just “one email”.

The research also revealed that 36% of respondents are worried about losing their jobs. Employees tend to work more and overdeliver when they feel that there is a risk of losing their jobs. This trend was amplified even more during the pandemic, when there were a lower number of jobs available in the employment market.

Factored together, working longer hours creates another new set of challenges apart from productivity – deteriorating physical and mental health.

The frightening feeling of being locked in

As boundaries become blurred, so does our work-life balance. When people work from home, they lack non-work socialisation. Every message, email, and call that they have throughout the day is about work. Those with regional or global remit might even be taking calls well after midnight. With restaurants and gyms closed, those who live alone felt the brunt of prolonged isolation.

Overworking negatively impacts our life and productivity. A lot of the early tell-tale signs of overworking are non-verbal. Overworked employees may not feel as excited about their work and display a general lack of interest during meetings. At this point, they are on autopilot mode. They will continue to contribute to the business but at the expense of their own mental health.

Some managers might see their employees’ ability to meet deadlines and reply to emails promptly as productivity and start loading more work tasks on them. This only increases their workload, causing the employees to clock even more working hours and calls to meet deadlines.

When we work from home, we also lack face time with our colleagues and friends. As leaders, we have a tendency to believe that our staff are doing fine, especially if they haven’t told us about their challenges at work or with their personal lives. The Singaporean workforce can be quite passive and less inclined to display any signs of vulnerability.

They are more likely to quit their jobs than speak out to their bosses about their problems because they fear they will not receive the assistance they need, or will appear weak to their superiors if they do.

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Go the extra mile to care for your employees

As leaders, we need to make a conscious effort to engage our people and check if they are overworking, and help alleviate their stress to prevent a burnout. Employers should find time to know what’s happening in team members’ lives, even if they say that they are doing fine. This goes beyond employee surveys or virtual workout sessions.

Put in time to care for your employees and ensure they maintain a work-life balance. Whether it’s at the beginning or the end of every work call, ask about their life and understand how they are coping. To inspire everyone and boost employee morale, use internal communication systems such as email or forums to recognise and reward efforts on a regular basis in a fair and transparent manner.

At Randstad, we host “Tuesday Talks” which is an open forum for employees around the world to speak to our CEO and global leaders. In Singapore and Malaysia, we have an “open-door policy”. Any employee, regardless of their level of seniority in the organisation, is welcome to come talk to me about anything, including personal issues that they sense may affect their job performance. There is a greater need now more than ever for leaders to establish trust, so that people can feel assured that they will not be judged for sharing their challenges.

Employers also need to make sure that everyone in their organisation or immediate team has adequate rest. Hold the urge to send non-urgent emails or messages after working hours. Be clear and flexible about deadlines. Reserve all work-related messages for Google chats, Slack or Teams, instead of personal messaging apps like Whatsapp or Telegram.

Create fair and equal opportunities for every employee

While 16% of respondents said that they had worked longer hours in 2020, 14% said their working time or salary have been reduced during the pandemic. This suggests that employers may not be optimising their full workforce’s potential.

This group of employees may lack motivation or do not have adequate skills to do the new work that the business expects them to. Upskilling them to split the workload or assigning them to a new team is hence critical to rekindle their work motivation and confidence.

The ultimate goal is to make sure that work is allocated equally and that everyone has a chance to work on something new at the same time.

Make time for yourself and pursue your passions

At the end of the day, we are all humans. I’ve written and spoken about the importance and benefits of being an empathetic leader, especially during a pandemic. As a managing director, I don’t expect my employees to give their 110% every day. There are bound to be some days that we may not feel as inspired or curious about every project that we are working on, and it is completely normal and understandable.

I’ve been lucky enough to work for bosses who encourage me to step away from the daily grind, which has made me realise that those times away from work are when I do my best thinking. This is why I’ve always stressed to my employees about the importance of taking time for themselves. I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the leader to create and drive an encouraging work environment for our employees so that they feel empowered and enabled to do their best for the company.

This article is contributed by Randstad Singapore.

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