Fixing a broken work culture: lessons from Singapore

Fixing a broken work culture: lessons from Singapore

Thursday November 16, 2017,

7 min Read

With news still rife about Japan’s vicious work culture of karoshi – where young professionals overwork themselves to death – the scenario in Southeast countries is also grim. In fact, Singapore, which continues to grow in clout as an economic powerhouse, also held onto its dismal record of having the longest working hours in the world. At 2,317.2 hours, Singapore overshadows Japan, which recorded 1,735 working hours in the year 2016.

According to a 2014 Working Hours Survey, conducted by recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, a majority of respondents claimed that the strain was becoming ‘intolerable’ to handle. So what could be the reason that has left Singaporean work culture in this state of flux, where millennials work close to 48 hours in a week? Even the elderly – who astonishingly form 12 percent of Singapore’s workforce – are often forced out of retirement to fend for themselves.

Source: Pixabay

While these numbers and patterns do not seem to bode well for the working population in Singapore, all hope is not lost. The 2016 Working Hours Survey stated that the situation has eased substantially compared to 2014, as employers have begun offering more flexible working arrangements to the employees. 

Did you know that India fared one of the worst – scoring a lowly five – in the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index, whereas Singapore fared slightly better with a score of three? Hence, it is important to examine why the work culture in Singapore took such a hit, why there was no room for change to take place up until very recently, and what we in India need to take away from it.

Problems and challenges

Obligatory long hours

Working long hours, well beyond the contractual ones, is a uniform norm across organisations in Singapore – it’s almost obligatory. According to the 2016 Working Hours Survey, nearly a 1,000 respondents stated that they felt ‘obliged’ to work longer than their contracted hours. Additionally, nearly 90 percent were not paid for these extra hours. The most worrying of all was that 35 percent of respondents claimed that the long working hours were affecting both their personal and family life.

The culture alludes more to the idea of ‘face-time’ over the actual amount of work being done. A survey by JobsCentral stated that 75 percent of Singaporean employers believe it’s important their staff work over the weekends or after office hours. Another 46 percent said they would contact employees on leave. Both practices leave no room for a decent work-life balance for employees, leaving many disillusioned and teetering at the edge of a burnout.

This naturally dents overall employee morale because not only do they lose out on personal time, no one stands to gain from it either – neither the company nor the employees themselves.

Financial goal-setting

As Singapore continues its reign as the most expensive city in the world, it highlights the struggle of its working class to maintain its standard of living. According to a survey, 29 percent of Singaporeans do not leave a job they hate, because they are too scared to be trudged down with the burden of financial commitments. Subsequently, 25 percent of the same sample added that they do not quit in the fear of not being able to procure another decent job.

Office politics

Working in a professional space which is rife with office politics also adds to the problem. The absence of an effective work-life balance and being herded into a compact space strains personal and professional growth of the workforce. Now, throw office politics in the mix and you have a recipe for absolute toxicity. Office politics is, after all, a pretty global phenomenon, and is by no means limited to Singapore. As Claire Smart, HR Business Partner, at Randstad Singapore puts it, “... toxic employees who create negative work environments cause other, often more valued employees to quit.”

Setting things right

These setbacks within the Singaporean work ecosystem haven’t gone unnoticed. Both local and foreign companies based in the area have been attempting to overturn its fate. Companies have started implementing new policies and structures which help encourage employee engagement, provide greater work-life balance, and encourage employees to willingly put in their best.

Flexible policies like paternity leaves, work-from-home

According to a government report, more employers in Singapore have started offering Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) and leave benefits to their employees in an attempt to help them improve their overall work-life balance. In a report released by the Ministry of Manpower (MoM), the number of firms allowing teleworking for employees rose from 70 percent in 2015 to 77 percent in 2016. Quite naturally, the proportion of employees working in firms which offered at least one formal FWA also rose, from 65 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2016.

While most firms offer a work-from-home option, some have even introduced policies such as paternity leaves. For instance, IKEA Singapore recently passed a new rule which allows employees (even part-time staff) four weeks of paid paternity leave, which is a significant move even in comparison with global standards.

Engagement events within office hours

According to reports, customer retention rates are 18 percent higher when employees are engaged. Keeping that in mind, Singaporean employers are using different ways to keep their employees engaged and in effect happy. From skill-development workshops to bonding and engagement activities within the office space, such events keep team morale high and establish camaraderie between employees and managers, concurrently, building a strong and productive team in the long-run.

Companies have also started actively organising and promoting events such as ‘Family Day’, where you bring your family to office; a fitness week with the local gym; introducing new facilities in office for the convenience of the employees, etc. – all of which go a long way to create employee engagement, and as a result, employee-retention.

Looking after the direct interests of employees

Companies have realised that taking a direct interest in the growth and development of their talent pool helps in their retention. Employees will offer their loyalty only when their superiors take a direct interest in their achievements and other issuance. To this end, employers need to make a genuine effort to make their employees feel wanted and depended upon. 

In 2009, the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) incorporated a new employee-engagement programme, which centred on the principles of the 5 Cs – collaboration, commitment, communication, compassion, and consistency. The programme was inculcated into the heart of the company culture, with activities such as anniversary celebrations and induction functions made compulsory. New traditions such as ‘Healthy Mondays’, which is reserved for team building activities and exercises, are also largely in practice.

The company’s efforts seemed to have paid off: OCS 2015 showed that NKF employees now demonstrate significantly higher commitment towards the organisation, with its employee-engagement index increasing from 4.85 in 2013 to 5.09 in 2015.

Additionally, in a 2014 employee pulse survey, almost 90 percent of employees rated six and above on the employee happiness scale, while 75 percent of employees responded: “Yes, I am proud of NKF”.

Singapore may still have quite some way to go in terms of sporting the most favourable kind of work-culture, one that prescribes to all industries, roles, and departments, but over the past few years, it has made a lot of effort to bring about a significant improvement in the same. Singapore’s journey teaches us one thing though – unrestrained development is an unsustainable model in the long run. Indian companies should be aware of the same in their push for growth and development in the future.