In with a culture that affords proper planning, sufficient resources, and realistic targets, Aditi Sharma Kalra urges.

People are working longer hours. Recent studies have revealed that two-thirds of managers stay back in the office for at least an hour extra at least three times a week; 35% say that long working hours require them to make sacrifices in their family life; while science shows people who work 55 hours or more per week have a 33% greater risk of health issues than those who work 35 to 40 hours per week.

Yet, reality shows that Southeast Asian countries continue to have among the longest working hours in the world. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Industry leaders have cited several reasons, one of which is bosses holding on to the old idea of face time where employees must be physically present in the office, says Tina Lim, GMS-T, Global Mobility Consultant, Micron Semiconductor Asia.

Equally to blame is “an absence of proper planning, insufficient resources and unrealistic targets”, Ramani Amar, Talent Director of McCann Worldgroup Singapore, says.

The situation is compounded in this region where, as HR professional Helene Guerin explains: “The market is very competitive in Asia so since an early age, people are striving to work harder in order to differentiate themselves from the rest.”

What’s also interesting, and perhaps related to the culture, is the number of distractions in a typical workday. Many of us choose to email rather than walk over or pick up the phone, so the typical office worker has tens of emails to reply to before the close of day (and before they get any real work done).

So, what’s a leader to do? There’s several impactful and straightforward, yet workable ideas, I gleaned in conversations with the experts.

First, address the company culture, says Guerin. “Together with the senior management, my responsibility as HR manager is to convey (our) values to the teams to break the decade-long connection between long hours and performance and reward.”

No doubt it can very well be that people are swamped at a certain time of the year or ahead of a critical business pitch. In such cases, we must track carefully this is not a recurring happening with some specific individuals or business units, in which case there might be a culture or staffing issue, says Guerin.

Other aspects of culture also play a role, for example, the “distractions” mentioned earlier, to which HR manager Cindy Ow says: “Have a culture that encourages people to pick up the phone to talk rather than sending emails.” On the etiquette of meetings, she adds the need to determine a clear outcome beforehand, as well as limit regular meetings to an hour.

Meanwhile, Konica Minolta BSA takes a direct approach to getting people home on time. Irene Goh, Senior Manager of Regional Strategic HR, shares: “On our company premises, the air con is switched off 30 minutes after official office hours. Further, we encourage staff to participate in the healthy workplace programmes, as well as have informal employee groups for running and badminton.”

Even so, this approach doesn’t work across all sectors, for example, in professional services, where the team must go the extra mile for its clients, says Jod Gill, Director – Personal Tax, Global Mobility Services, Tax Development & Solutions, KPMG Services. “Sometimes, this does mean long hours, but we are empowered to take downtime when we can and to work flexibly when it is appropriate to do so,” he says.

“Equally, we have to be careful as there is no one-size-fits-all approach. We all choose to prioritise or de-prioritise our career at different points in life so it’s important to ensure these periods align with employer expectations.”

Aptly summarised by Gill, even as Rachel Ong, Principal Generalist of HR Global Mobility at KBR, recalls what a project director shared at the start of a major project: “The very reason we work hard is for the sake of our families. Without families, work is meaningless. Only then can we truly contribute to the project and bring it to a success.”

Whatever approach you choose for your company or your team, “the key is to demonstrate empathy,” as Amar puts it, given the quest for work-life balance is an important goal for many of us.

Photo / StockUnlimited