Who are We Kidding? – There is No Work Life Balance

I just had to reprint this article in the Straits Times by Alan Tan, because it’s a reflection of what Singapore is becoming. It’s the key reason why the quality of life is low here even though Human Resources always talks about the virtues of Work Life Balance. Sadly, in most cases, it seems to be just talk.

This topic is close to my heart and please excuse me while I have my angry rant.

When I was working I had to put in hours till 10pm and the central air-conditioning would be turned off at 6pm leaving me with a splitting headache and nausea at the end of each night. When I instead took home my work to do, my boss wasn’t happy as she physically couldn’t see me working. This made me so mad. We were not being managed by the actual work done, but by what was perceived to be done. This is the case for my friends today as well. I used to be so frustrated when I had to work weekends as well without any time off. How can you still wonder why our birth rates are low and that Singaporeans are too uptight. It’s all due to stress. Not the healthy kind of stress, but distress which leads to illness and injury.

I noticed that when I stayed beyond 9 pm it made my bosses treat me better and the next day when I left early (say 7pm!) I would get sarcastic remarks and unhappy glares. My boss expected me to put in the same hours as she did although I made only a fraction of her salary. And when I was there in the office at night, she would come in and give me even more work. When I left on time I would get called on the handphone and she would be displeased that I had left work early even though it was already a half hour after the official time off work. It made me feel really bad and incompetent even though I knew I was a hard worker. It was so bad for the self-esteem and I see so many of my friends going through that today. They do it till they can’t take it anymore and then have no choice, but to quit for their own mental well-being.

I did work in an American company where the boss encouraged us to leave on time and expressed that if 8 hours is not enough to get the work done than we are not working smart and I have to agree. We could negotiate deadlines and he only made us do what was truly important. Important and not just urgent. I wish this type of healthy work culture would permeate to all Singapore workplaces. And this won’t unless it comes from the top down. I am glad that most companies are officially on 5 day work weeks now, but I wish that did not mean much longer hours during the weekdays and uncompensated work hours during the weekends.

I HAVE been quite disturbed at the number of hours people put in at their workplace. Normal work hours start from 8.30am and usually end at 6pm. But more and more, people work till 7pm or 8pm before going home.

I am not against people working late but do spare a thought for the family. The reason people work hard is mainly because they want to provide for their families, but what is the point if they are not able to spend time with them?

Most companies stipulate that the official working hours are from 8.30am to 6pm, so employees should have every right to go back home after 6pm. Whatever work that cannot be finished should be left till the next working day.

Some may argue that their bosses would be unhappy about them leaving on time, but if that were the case, then why have official working hours?

A person’s ability to work effectively diminishes after so many hours of work, and frustration at the thought of not being able to spend time with the family will build up. All this can translate into low productivity.

No one is indispensable in the workplace, but a person’s family cannot live without him.

Let us be fair to our family members and loved ones, and stick to the official working hours and achieve a work-life balance. True joy comes from knowing one has fulfilled the needs of one’s family. Only then will one be able to fully focus on one’s work and contribute more effectively at the workplace.

For the family and one’s own well-being, let us work smart and leave the workplace on time.

Alan Tan

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore & recently cancer too.
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30 Responses to Who are We Kidding? – There is No Work Life Balance

  1. Lady J says:

    I hear you bookjunkie and like you, I’ve had my fair share of moments or seen friends who felt guilty leaving work on the dot so as to be seen that they are working hard.

    While I like to think that the culture at the workplace is changing, it is doing so at an extreme slow speed. So you are right, the stress at work will ultimately be brought over to the home.

    But there are the few lucky ones (like me) who have understanding bosses. My boss would expect the work to be done within the stipulated deadlines and if I finish my task-at-hand, I usually get to go home on the dot.

    Of course, there will be times that I have to work overtime or on weekends, but she usually is understanding enough to grant me time-off for the additional hours on big projects that I’ve worked on. Guess, I’m also lucky to work in an organisation that embrace work-life balance, so I can’t really complain that much and only hope that things would improve eventually at the workplace.

    • bookjunkie says:

      your boss sounds soo nice and a bit like the 2 very kind bosses I had during my first decade or so at work.

      It was so exhausting to find out on Friday after a whole week of working late that you would have to work the next two weekends without time-off…that was the breaking point for me. As they say last straw on the camel’s back. I hope this issue gets highlighted as change is definitely needed. With more expats in the workforce I hope they raise the issue too and basic decency at work prevails.

  2. Crystal says:

    Industry has a lot to do with it, as does the personality of the boss.

    At Ravi’s previous employer, he had two different bosses. The first didn’t care when people were in the office (as opposed to working from home) as long as the work got done. The second was big on “face time.” It’s unsurprising that Ravi liked the first boss far more.

    Unfortunately, with Ravi’s current job, working for a big bank, he has to do all work in-office, largely for security reasons. He is gone from 8:30 until 9 at night most days. The financial rewards are worthwhile now, but I know he’s really conflicted about how much he misses of Elanor’s life. He makes a real effort to do what he can…E has some make-up classes coming up for gymnastics (from missed classes whilst we’re in the US) and he’s going to take her for Saturday make-ups because it’s been ages since he saw her at a gymnastics class. Every so often he and E have a daddy/daughter day on a Sunday. And when we’re on vacation, I try to step back and let him get as much E time as he can. It’s also the big reason (apart from her night-owl tendencies) that E stays up late and doesn’t go to bed until 10/10:30..so she can get daddy time every day (she sleeps until 10/1030 in the morning, so she’s getting enough sleep).

    It’s hard, and I think few people get it right. Sadly.

    • bookjunkie says:

      I had 2 bosses who were like Ravi’s first boss and I worked harder for them willingly. They were awesome and I respected them so much. It improved my productivity and quality of work when I in turn felt trusted, respected and appreciated by my boss.

      The second kind of boss…ugh…..in my opinion a poor manager. I prefer management by objective rather than face time. For me it doesn’t matter where you get it done as long as you get it done well and within the negotiated timelines.

      Another thing about Singapore bosses that made me so mad was they used to wait till 5 or 6pm to spring ‘urgent’ work on you and it was a recurring thing. They were passing on their lack on time management to their employees. You would often find out that they received the piece of work days or even weeks ago.

  3. Those who does not have a life after working hours shouldn’t think the rest of the world are like them. If they want to stick on and slog, do go ahead. Others have a life (and family) too, and these people have to learn to respect that fact.

  4. kirsten says:

    In Singapore I have heard so many cases of people dying in the workplace/dying from stress. My own high school principal had high blood pressure, then had a stroke in her office and passed away. And then I heard from friends of people they knew getting heart attacks too young, or just collapsing in the office.

    I’m not saying that there MUST be a direct cause and effect, but if you think about it, surely the high-pressure-cooker lifestyle of Singapore must contribute to these incidents in some way. It’s just not healthy.

    Personally I can work crazy hours and long hours, but I don’t really blame my work for that because it’s the nature of the industry and I know my bosses try their best not to overwork us. Even so, I find that just living in Singapore alone is enough to make me stress out and push myself too hard. When everyone demands everything fast, and everyone is in a hurry, you too feel like you should be hurrying and working harder and faster and longer. The stress and the pressure is just contagious.

    Which is why much as I love my country, I have eventually come to wonder if my lifestyle in Singapore is actually sustainable. How long before I work myself sick? Or the pressure and crowding gets to me?

    • bookjunkie says:

      I used to be able to work without sleep…up till I was 31 and then my dad passed away suddenly, I got older and my whole perspective on life changed.

      Those times when I worked hard I had great working environments and I was loving what I did….it felt meaningful. There as also trust and respect in the office. After that the economy got really bad and it was downhill as employers knew that employees had no choice. Lots of abuse of power, politics etc. I got so sick of it and those were the times I wish I could leave.

      • kirsten says:

        I don’t really think that it’s actually really helping the economy much either. Sure, we’re some of the hardest workers in the world, but how much is that really helping us? I think that in the long run having a nation full of overworked, miserable people doesn’t help the society. And we’re already seeing it in the dismal birth rate.

        • bookjunkie says:

          every time I see the headlines that we need to increase productivity I cringe. I just see one worker doing what used to be 3 person job.

  5. Kim says:

    At least you get to reach home.Heard of those who said there’s even no lunch break/must be 24 hours on standby.

  6. It sounds like you had a really terrible boss. It’s sad but your ex-boss probably has a very shitty life and wants to make sure no one else lives better than she does. The best way to “take revenge” is to show that you are living well and are happier now.

  7. Abbi says:

    I am an expat living in Singapore, my husband works for a Japanese company, the complete lack of work/life balance has destroyed our marriage and family life.

    • bookjunkie says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience Abbi. I am so sorry to hear that though. The work environment in Singapore is just not condusive for a basic decent quality of life, unless you’re one of the lucky ones.

  8. Sunie says:

    The 2 bosses that I couldn’t tolerate:
    1. She herself is a mother of two. But she left the caring of them to her ‘network’ of grandmother, sisters and maid. When I had to take urgent leave to administer medication every 2 hours (even through the night) to my 5 month old, she told me off for not establishing such a network. She herself didnt even bother to bring her kids to see any doctors when they were sick, and her sister had to do it for her.

    2. He comes in to work late, and stays late. And he expects his staff to stay late to answer to his questions. He also calls for meetings 5minutes before lunch or knock off time.

    Some bosses think we go home to shake leg. For a working mother, its definitely NO. We have to dash off to our second/night shift. And the second shift is no less demanding!

    • bookjunkie says:

      Thanks for sharing your horrible bosses story……wish there was some kind of organization that would protect workers against this type of bullying. But these people are so subtle at it, that oppressed employees continue to suffer.

  9. Piglet's Mom says:

    I totally agree with you!

    I am a working mother with a 17-month-old baby. My husband quit his job at a bank for one at a statutory board last year as the board promised him a work-life balance he found missing at his previous job.

    But it was a big fat lie.

    Now a few months into this new job, the senior management at the board told him that it’s the “culture” of the organization that everyone works late on weekdays and over the weekends.

    My poor husband is going through the exact same things as you did then – it doesn’t matter he is good at his job and he works very hard, just the fact that he isn’t physically present till late into the night is perceived as a poor worker who is not “dedicated” (quoting the word of his boss).

    The Singapore government needs to do more to get the heads of its very own agencies and organizations to practice this work-life balance it preaches.

    Until then, we should hold off our plan for a second baby.

    • bookjunkie says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Sometimes I wonder if I am alone in this and I really want to thank you for confirming that there is such a problem today. It’s very bad for the psyche and can make you feel really down. It’s also extremely draining as we are human beings and not machines…after a while we will just break down. I have close ones going through the same thing right now.

  10. John says:

    Our PM had just finished delivering his National Day Rally speech. As usual, he mentioned about the decline birth rate and offer to give more perks to tackle the shortage.


    I laughed. Its not the perks that encourage us to have more babies but what we want is A WORK LIFE BALANCE from the employer !!!

    • bookjunkie says:

      So true John. employers are killing us slowly with unreasonable demands 🙁 I used to stay in the office till 10pm and if I left any earlier than 7pm I was sure to see the effects. They should take care of work life balance for real (everyone should not have to stay till late daily…there’s something wrong if we have to). But on the other hand they keep harping about productivity. I also think it’s unfair for single people to have to pick up the slack. Too many assumptions made about singles it boarders on discriminatory.

  11. stitchgal says:

    I’m glad I chanced upon this blog! I was sorta googling on how to maintain a work-life balance, hoping to get some insights online when I chanced upon your blog! I’m on my 9-10 months taking up a real full-time job after graduating from a University in the U.S. It wasn’t recently when I realized that work is consuming much of my life. I realized I would be so tired to do anything else after work or even in the weekends, and that’s when I realized its terrible feeling this way especially when I’m still young (sorta :p) and I should be living up my life instead…

    It’s really a huge change coming back to Singapore… Work life is definitely much more demanding compared to the US. Similar to others who commented, I wonder if living in Spore is sustainable when much of your life is being sucked up by work, which I think is so not worth it…

    PS: I too, heard of young people (people in the 20s) suffering/dying of all kinds of illnesses like cancer etc due to work stress…. It scary and I would still advise everyone to have a healthy work-life balance no matter what!!

    • bookjunkie says:

      Thank you so much for sharing about the realities of work life. We often feel so alone and that we are just whining. I am so glad there is some truth to this lack of work life balance and the illnesses that result. Wish something could be done about it and especially new laws enforced.

  12. anon says:

    It’s the saddening truth but Singapore is bred this way as a pressure cooker. And I have seen many people conveniently blame the government through all sorts of various reasons. But in the end, we all fail to realize that each and every single one of us have the power to change our pace. The whole mindset of working longer hours equating to longer productivity is inculcated since our younger education days when students spend all day long studying in library with the idea that longer hours leads to more studying done. It’s the culture that needs to be shaken, that each of us have the control to want to make a change, to know that official hours indicate times for business and anytime beyond we are absolutely NOT OBLIGATED to stay on. If you are the lucky ones with flexible mindset, then great for you. But most bosses grew up with the close-minded mentality (especially the local ones) and unfortunately they cannot see the POINTLESSNESS of staying longer when work has been done.

    • bookjunkie says:

      I have this same mentality when I had people reporting to me. I don’t like them to stay beyond official working hours. It’s unfair to them and not productive in the long run. The same way I don’t like to either. After a certain time if you have to stay in the office till 8 pm everyday there really is something wrong and you come to work the next day tired and not as productive and the negative cycle continues. I really hate it. I also feel that employees who later become bosses forget how it is. We should treat other people the way we like to be treated and apply the same to them. They are human too. We should measure projects by objective and outcome and have reasonable deadlines. The best bosses I had negotiated deadlines and helped to prioritize what was important. Truly appreciated them. Wish there were more such bosses/employers out there.

      Thanks for your views….I agree with it all. Closed minded mentality…you’re so right.

      And just because someone stays late in the office daily doesn’t make them a good worker. (very backward thinking if that’s the view out there). Could either be someone creating the impression that they work late (ugggh..office politics/nonsence) or could also be a situation where one person is doing 3 people’s job 🙁

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  15. Jayden Tan says:

    Very nice article. Honestly I have being in several jobs for the past few years and it is true that finding a company that provides work life balance is not easy. I am very lucky to join a japanese company that provides a decent pay,great benefits and most of the staff went home on the dot. In the end, I just felt that my family and career is equally important and I would not sacrifice one for the other.

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