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Signs of Overwork: Does Singapore Have a Burnout Work Culture?

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Signs of Overwork
Signs of Overwork

Are you beginning to feel the signs of overwork? You are likely not alone. A 2021 work-life balance survey revealed that Singapore had one of the most overworked populations across different cities in the world, clinching the #2 spot behind Hong Kong –– with 25.1% of full-time employees clocking in more than 48 hours in each workweek.

This isn’t new, however. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore has had a burgeoning work problem. It was still the second-most overworked city in 2019, only trailing behind Tokyo, a city with such long-standing overwork issues that they already have a name for it –– karoshi, which translates to “death by overwork.”

Why are Singaporean employees overworked?

There are several reasons why Singaporeans subscribe to the collective culture of overtime. Our nature of excellence has led us to create one of the most intense workplaces in the world, compounded by the industries’ shift to work-from-home schemes due to the pandemic.

While the circuit breaker has demonstrated that various workplaces can work just as well with a remote setup, the prevailing presenteeism culture has also affected its optimisation and effectiveness. If employees in the past felt compelled to stay behind until their bosses leave even long after work is done, today’s remote culture has employees working overtime out of the guilt that many workers feel while WFH: that they are not putting in enough work, or not being productive enough.

Although managers may feel distressed over being unable to watch over their team’s shoulders, research shows otherwise. A study by Harvard Business Review shows that workers are even more productive while working from home, viewing their work as more worthwhile while being able to prioritise important tasks without being drawn into large meetings.

Ideally, a remote working setup can and should be able to facilitate a better work-life balance, especially for those with young children or elderly parents to care for, plus other responsibilities at home. Yet reality seems to paint an opposite picture: Bloomberg reports that people who work from home clock in three hours more each day than before.

With evidence proving that working from home can be more productive for employees, the demand to work longer hours, explicit or otherwise, can cause further strain on workers’ well-being. With the blurring of boundaries between work and home, and without a physical place to time in and out from, working beyond 5 pm from the comforts of your own home becomes an all too easy endeavour.

Is it illegal to overwork employees?

According to Singapore’s Employment Act, employees should work a maximum of 44 hours each week –– any work rendered beyond that will entitle employees to overtime pay. That said, this law only applies to certain employees: (a) a workman, such as one doing manual labour, who earns a basic monthly salary of not more than S$4,500; (b) a non-workman who earns a basic monthly salary of not more than S$2,600. If you fall under any of these classifications, your employer must comply with providing your overtime (OT) pay to avoid any legal liabilities.

Here’s a caveat: managers and executives are not covered by this act and are not entitled to overtime pay. Other professions not covered by this law include professionals with tertiary education and specialised knowledge and skills such as doctors, dentists, solicitors, advocates, and chartered accountants.

Burnout symptoms: signs that you are overworked

While maintaining a work-life balance can be difficult, being overworked is not healthy –– it affects your mood, your well-being, relationships with family and friends, and even makes you much more unproductive in the long run.

When done right, however, working remotely can help you create a more flexible scheme that can help you strike a better balance in your life. Here are signs that you are overworked, plus tips on how to resolve them.

You have trouble “switching off.”

Your mind has trouble disconnecting from work, even when the clock has hit 5 pm. With the lines between work and home continuing to blur, this could cause some difficulty disengaging from work, leaving you with an “always-on” mindset even when it’s time to rest.

You feel you always have to “catch up.”

The work situation amidst COVID-19 may have led to retrenchment, forcing one person to take on the responsibility of two or three people. Or perhaps, new and dramatic changes to your organisation’s structure and business process may have left you with more work than usual. Whatever the case, you may always feel that you are running behind, stressed by needing to “catch up” with a pile of work that never seems to run out.

You feel disconnected from friends and family.

You no longer have enough time to socialise and bond with friends and loved ones –– and in the windows of time that you do, you are too frazzled and stressed by the prospect of work that you are unable to connect meaningfully with these people. You may feel that you are missing out on important milestones and events in your life while losing the energy to socialise and catch up.

Your quality of work feels unsatisfactory, despite your best efforts.

You feel unsatisfied by your work and believe that its quality has reduced compared to past performances –– even though you have spent considerable time and effort working on it. Your creativity may feel blocked or stifled as if a mental wall is hindering you from reaching your fullest potential.

The beginning of each week gives you anxiety.

You’re familiar with the weekly dread every Sunday when the next day signals the beginning of another work week. In some cases, this emotion may feel more intense, making you feel more worried and fearful –– as in the case of a big project or presentation that is coming up.

How to deal with overwork

Work on an everyday WFH routine.

The most common advice to anyone adjusting to a new WFH or remote setup is to establish an everyday routine. It’s simple: routines work. While those sticking to a 9-to-5 may take schedules for granted –– nothing is more rigid than sticking to an eight-hour workday, after all ––, an effective WFH routine considers all aspects of your daily life.

Begin by outlining what you want to achieve that day: what daily tasks can you realistically accomplish? Then start factoring in other activities, whether it’s a walk, your workout, or checking in on a family member or a friend.

Embrace the flexible nature of the remote system.

The beauty of remote working means that you have the flexibility to decide how you want to work. One way to do it is by segmenting blocks during the day –– such as a four-hour work block –– and leaving room for flexibility in between those.

Avoid measuring productivity by the hour.

Much of a remote employee’s stress and guilt stems from the feeling that you are not spending enough time working. Focus on what needs to get done, not how much time you spend to get it done. It also means avoiding practices such as “compensating” for your commuting time with more work.

Strive for work-life harmony.

There are days when more focus is required for work, while other days can be for catching up with loved ones and dedicating yourself to hobbies. Following the rhythm of your work dynamic can help you stay productive and fulfilled at the same time.

If your work still feels too much to handle, try opening a conversation with your employer by negotiating the workload. If you juggle multiple responsibilities, you can also talk to your supervisor about alternating days for each task. This way, you don’t feel overwhelmed and stressed.

With the right balance and control over your schedule, you can manage the feeling of burnout and have a rewarding WFH experience. For more expert advice on maintaining productivity and morale at work, visit the Career Resources page.