In 1930, in an essay titled – Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that labour-saving technologies would lead to a 15-hour work week.
However, workers everywhere continue to put in longer hours than ever before. And none more so than Singapore, which ranks as the most overworked country in the Asia-Pacific region, if not the world.
On average, Singaporean workers work 45 hours per week and take a measly seven days of annual leave. 48 per cent of us are unhappy at our workplace, 70 per cent suffer from stress at work, and only 12 per cent feel very engaged with their overall work experience.
The statistics paint a grim picture of a chronically unhappy bunch of people. As a technologically advanced country, why do we work such long hours, and often in jobs we don’t even like?
Behind the long hours
During pre-pandemic times, when working on-site was the norm, a workplace culture of presenteeism probably plays a part in explaining the long hours.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office would identify with this. The feeling of confusion and guilt over whether one could leave the workplace despite finishing the day’s work. That odd affliction where employees feel obliged to “hang around” the workplace until their managers leave the premises.
But how is it that even when working from home, we continue putting in such long hours, to the point that there is no longer much distinction between work time and home life?
I am not discounting the presence of unreasonable managers. Those who run their departments like a military boot camp, making unreasonable demands and pushing employees to breaking point. They are out there. Hidden in plain sight, a façade of respectability while treating people as nothing more than KPIs for their own benefit.
However, we are ultimately not slaves. Therefore, is it possible that we are personally responsible for our own predicament?
For a start, our disengagement with work might have a part to play in our never-ending workday.
Imagine having to perform a job you have absolutely no interest in, with the knowledge that these tedious and mundane tasks make little to no difference in the grand scheme of things. Life would probably feel like groundhog day played out in slow motion.
And yet, that is the scenario many of us find ourselves in, whether at home or in the office. When we feel such a high level of disconnection towards our work, it can be difficult to muster the enthusiasm to complete our tasks. That is when micro-procrastination sets in, and we do everything we can to delay the inevitable.
At the office, this can manifest as frequent toilet breaks, an extended lunch, and endless chats with colleagues. For those working from home, the sky’s the limit. Playing with the cat, toying with the espresso machine, scrolling away on the smartphone et cetera. Before we know it, half the day is gone, and our workday extends beyond the 6pm mark.
The cult of busy living
Across the industrialised world, busyness is now a badge of honour. There is immense pressure to fill our calendars with conferences, meetings, events, or even yoga sessions. A packed calendar, however meaningless, is viewed with reverence and approval. That is because being busy highlights our importance, value, and self-worth.
And what better way to be busy than to occupy the day with work?
Consider how unemployed people get a bad rep as being lazy and feckless. Those who put in excessive hours at work are, in turn, put on a pedestal and celebrated as hardworking and virtuous.
And as far as productivity and conscientiousness are concerned, time spent working continues to be how an employee’s performance is measured. To be constantly working also gives away the impression that our jobs are indispensable. It is how we feel special, even when we are not.
So unless you are a retiree, busyness and working long hours are deeply entwined. They have become the barometer to measure our success, which is another intangible idea we are addicted to.
An addiction to success
As a society, we are bound by a narrow definition of success, which usually means wealth and power. Some are lucky enough to be born into it, but for many of us, work is the means by which we can achieve this socially accepted version of success.
It does not help that living in Singapore can feel like a pressure cooker, where there is often an invisible hierarchy and code of conduct to live by. Even to those who acknowledge the absurdity of such rules, there is still immense pressure to follow them and fit in.
What we wear, where we dine, and how we live. All of it denotes various levels of success. It affects how we are viewed and treated, to the point where our dignity practically depends on it.
With so much at stake, it is not uncommon to find people who feel compelled to stay in jobs because they pay well or look prestigious and respectable to others. As a result, personal interest and passion often take a backseat, and we find ourselves disengaged from work, stuck in jobs that make us unhappy.
There is a reason why the guy who ditched university to become a bus driver made the news. It is simply unheard of and deviates from the traditional path towards success.
While Singaporeans might moan about long hours and work stress, it is time to ask ourselves if it is entirely self-inflicted.
According to psychologist Barbara Killinger, people often sacrifice their own well-being through overwork to keep getting hits of success. They spend their lives on a hedonic treadmill, putting off relaxation time to work harder and longer. Even then, success is never good enough as a result of endless social comparisons.
Can that be a summation of our lives? It might shed some light on why we are so dissatisfied with our jobs and suffer from poor mental health.
Maybe if we were to redefine our own metrics of success and start pursuing jobs we are passionate about, long hours could become a distant memory. Subsequently, the stress and unhappiness associated with doing a job we hate would also melt away.
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