Is the 6-Hour Workday for Singapore?
Sweden is the chocolate factory for the modern developed world. Whenever our problems need an outlet, we crave for more endorphins. We look for the handy jar of Swedes. It was the case with education, free and rote-free. So it is now, with the 6-hour workday making the rounds on the Internet, even if it isn’t exactly news and remains the exception even in this seeming real-life utopia.
As expected, two reactionary factions emerge instantly. The first group screams “yes please!”, give us more free time and we shall give you more in less time, with their fingers crossed behind their backs. The second group hollers “hell no”, this is reckless for the company and economy, while secretly planning their routes to quicker promotions should shorter workdays be introduced.
Ideal Benefits of Shorter Workdays
Karl Marx calls for the fall of capitalism, but he might grudgingly agree to the compromise of shorter workdays. With more free time, workers will be more able to engage in humanized labour, producing for themselves (not limited to products) instead of external capitalist interests. Some jobs are enjoyable, but they represent a scarcity. In theory at least, we should accept that Marx’s vision is a good lifestyle ideal.
Yet without the fall of capitalism, the bottomline still matters. Productivity must gain as much as working hours drop. Proponents believe this is possible by maximizing mental functioning in the office. No distractions like social media, drastically shorter meetings, and mandatory off-desk lunch breaks. Shorter working hours also mean more time to recharge for the next working day.
What about Singapore?
A 6-hour workday will generate significant overhauls, not least because a 30-hour workweek currently qualifies one only as a part-time employee (<35h/week). Perhaps the distinction will become obsolete. Beyond the administrative hurdles, such a shift is closer than we think, since full-time local employees are working less and firms are relying more on part-time local employees.
The social benefits are manifold. Fewer working hours means more time for leisure and personal relationships. This can encourage self-expression, promote volunteerism, increase fertility rates, and allow dual-working parents to care more for their parents and neglected kids. While hypothetical, we must admit that long, gruelling hours in the office have often prevented us from finding expression in other realms of life.
Given the social and cultural impetus, the public service can take the policy lead. It has already introduced flexible work arrangements, from staggered hours to telecommuting, and encouraged private businesses to follow suit.
Despite Singapore’s productivity drive, real value-added per hour worked has only increased marginally, with capital input outpacing labour input. While retraining is a key strategy, heed should be paid to the possibility that long working hours may be a structural impediment to increasing worker productivity. The public sector can indeed do with shorter meetings and enforced lunch breaks, for a start.
In practice, though, Singapore is not ready to take the plunge in hours. Perhaps it is due to a survival mentality. Conditioned by challenging early lives, many older Singaporeans are industrious parents eager to slog long hours at work to stay employed and ensure a better life for their children. An enforced reduction in working hours may only drive them to seek other part-time jobs. Such an attitude mirrors Singapore’s resilience in early independence, and is necessary for Singapore to thrive in the competitive global economy.
Yet for white-collared workers, survival may be less of an issue. What drives them is the centrality of their work identity. In my MINDEF stint, I saw how an 8- or 9-hour workday has not dissuaded some military and management officers from perpetually working overtime. Many of them are in their 20s and 30s. They must surely belong to the “hell no” group of achievers seeking quicker promotions.
In such a climate, what luck do we have in enforcing a 6-hour workday? Those who work overtime get rewarded, compelling those who don’t to follow suit. Leisure time is seen as wasted time and is quickly filled up with more work. Simply put, not enough Singaporeans invest in self-expression outside formal work. This isn’t a bad thing for companies, but I think it’s unhealthy for most individuals.
Policies work only when cultures (are willing to) change. I’d love a 6-hour workday, but it does not cure our preoccupation with paid work and neglect elsewhere. Productivity is well-defined in terms of the workplace, in terms of money, but not in terms of the individual. I know too few people who believe in productive leisure, i.e. the purpose of active informal endeavours without monetary reward.
But cultures can change over time. If you belong to the “yes please” group, ask yourself: What you will actually do with the free time? You can’t just watch cute animal videos or swipe at smartphones for the endorphins. You must go beyond consumption. Only with actively social and creative activities can we create a generation of leisure subcultures to subvert the work-only mindset in Singapore, without compromising the work ethic key to our collective economic survival.
Sweden is not perfect, but neither is Singapore. We have our own set of difficulties, as a country and as a collection of individuals. Our work – unpaid, of course – is to understand and challenge existing constraints. But we must not be reckless, because one too many wrong step, and Willy Wonka is ready to send us packing.
Or… hire us to slog long hours making chocolate like the Oompa-Loompas!