HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
Luke McNeal

Look to leadership to slay the spectre of overwork


All across Asia and especially in Singapore, our reputation for overwork persists. Singapore consistently ranks amongst the top in the world for innovation and competitiveness, but is also similarly ranked for number of hours worked each week. With the World Health Organisation officially classifying burnout - resulting from chronic workplace stress - as a medical condition, business leaders have a responsibility to rethink working culture.

This devotion to extreme hours is nothing new. What was once considered necessary to fuel economic growth has recently been shown to exacerbate societal issues including low birth rate, falling productivity and even death by overwork. Overworking employees and cultivating a culture where hours equate to productivity hurts businesses in the long run.That’s why I believe we need to inspire a new type of leadership in our companies and our teams that champions efficiency, community and impact.

The pushback starts here
A recent study by Monster revealed that Singaporeans feel they have an “average” work-life balance and a third feel unsatisfied with the amount of time they’re able to spend with family and friends. More than 80% feel that having a good work-life balance can enhance productivity, but 42% say their bosses have a negative attitude towards it.

Sentiment like this requires action. The Singapore government is taking a progressive step to address work life balance by establishing a taskforce to identify and build workable solutions for all Singaporeans.

But ultimately, change needs to start from within.

Leaders at companies big and small can take steps to empower staff to work smarter, make better decisions and achieve their best. Effective employment initiatives can make a real difference to company culture, and in turn, lead to greater productivity. And the best examples are always driven from within by a committed leadership who leverage the best technology tools and make them available company wide. By embracing inclusiveness, RHB Bank achieved a 40% rise among existing staff of feeling part of a wider team. The happier working environment led to greater engagement, deeper collaboration and ultimately, stronger results by allowing teams to do work that matters.

Overcoming overwork in three simple steps
One of the most effective things a leader can do is analyse if the long hours their staff are working are productive. People need time to rest their minds. The phrase ‘sleep on it’ came about precisely because we need time to mull over everything we spent the day thinking about. Without this downtime, ideas aren’t given the time to fully form.

It is also possible to create initiatives at work for people to let their mind rest. Teams can create special interest groups to indulge in a shared interest, and lunch groups can get people talking about things unrelated to work. It’s also vital that employees have the chance to turn off notifications and be uncontactable at agreed times.

Second, implement practical measures. Multitasking should be cut out as much as possible, as should interruptions like needless meetings and never-ending emails. Bao Viet Group, the largest financial insurance institution in Vietnam, improved productivity by moving training sessions to mobile, freeing up countless hours and also reducing costs by 30%-50%. They also use chatbots manage simple customer queries allowing employees to focus on more rewarding work.

Third, leaders should empower employees to shape their own days, both in terms of where and when they work, but also in giving them greater agency to leave the office if they have achieved what they need to do that day. No one should have to wait for the boss to go home first and there should never be a stigma about leaving the office before the sun has set either.

It may be tempting for bosses to double down on overtime demands if competition heats up, an important project is due or the company is facing a threat. But from our work with 30,000 companies we know this is just not sustainable in the long-term.

Time is our most precious commodity, and whilst we all have bills to pay and ambitions to reach, work can’t be the sole focus of our days. It is time that we stopped valuing time in the office and instead focus on creating workplaces where contribution and community come to the fore. 

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Luke McNeal

Luke McNeal

Luke McNeal is the Head of Workplace at Facebook for Asia Pacific & Japan, a SaaS platform bringing Facebook's consumer technology into the Enterprise and transforming the way companies work. He leads Workplace’s teams across the APAC region, scaling customer adoption across industries and countries.

Prior to Facebook, Luke was the Head of Emerging Markets at Amazon Web Services (AWS), supporting customers across Southeast Asia to transform their businesses through cloud technologies. He launched Amazon’s initial field teams in several countries. Luke also held multiple leadership roles around the world at ServiceSource, a leader in driving recurring revenue for leading IT companies.

Luke holds MBAs from both the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the National University of Singapore. He is also a graduate of the University of Oregon with degrees in both Business Administration and International Studies.

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