The Overtime Nation

How would you approach a 1 km and a 5 km run? Some of us will approach both runs in the same manner, slow and steady and finish the respective runs recording a similar average pace throughout. The approaches will be entirely different if a maximum allowable time is set and there is a prize for the best performer at the end of each race. In such a situation, we will see a significant difference in average pace between the two runs. That is because the limitations of our human bodies restrict us from duplicating our best performance in a short run to a long one.

We can easily relate this to our working environment, where most of us are subjected to a carrot and stick situation. We have a minimum number of hours at work to fulfill and our performances are pit against our colleagues in a leaderboard. Like running, working is all about pacing ourselves and each of us do that subconsciously because of the limitations of our human bodies. We pace ourselves to last the 8-hour shift, to last the entire week, the entire year and our entire careers.

Contradictory to what the management gurus preaches, the level of our performances is somewhat fixed in time. We can only increase our productivity if something else give way on the other side of the balance. If a worker is asked to work faster today, he will require an additional break or the quality of his work will decrease due to the weariness or the lack of concentration. If a worker is asked to work longer hours, he should be compensated with rest as soon as possible, preferably the next day latest, so that he can resume the same level of productivity in the shortest time. Failing to do otherwise will see the worker seeking down-time be it on purpose (slacking) or not (falling ill)

If we understand these simple concepts, we will see employers in Singapore are extremely shortsighted. The concept of giving time-off for workers who go overtime instead of paying them in cash seems like good management advice. Not if you consider the real purpose of a time-off, which it is to ensure that the worker receives adequate rest for his additional sprint so that he can get back running at his usual average pace in the shortest time. What is the purpose of a time-off if the worker can only claim that time-off in, say, the following month? In a normal situation, the worker will slow himself down the next few days to cope. If overtime is enforced over a period of a long week or even a month, the level of productivity the management will receive will be on a curve of diminishing utility. Since the workers are not paid for overtime, they will take longer breaks (remember the runner's behavior) or slow down his average pace if breaks are not possible or suffer a burn out. It is a natural survival instinct that defy any management theories known to man. As a result, the company receives less than what they eventually pay for in time-offs, worse if workers activates their sick leave which they are less likely to do if their health is sustainable in a reasonable work routine.

If we think the concept is not applicable to highly motivated workers, we are wrong. An outstanding worker can appear to produce longer than most of his colleagues without compromising of work quality. He may even do that for months or even years. Such a worker is only drawing his reserves from elsewhere like how a credit card user will spend his future money. Before long, the worker will break down either mentally or physically or lose concentration once he finds new priorities in life that eluded him previously. Workers that do not fall under such a pattern are exceptional, are few and far between and should never be taken as a norm.

There is a reason why Singapore workers work the longest hours in but remains one of the least productive countries in the world. The notion of cheaper, better, faster is the most foolish mantra a nation can adopt. A good strategist will identity the most profitable demands, align and aggressively attune human resources to fulfill these demands, full prepared to balance the limits of the human being at the other end. That is the only way to stay relevant and sustainable at the same time.


  1. Actually, the more i am exposed to the australian workforce, the more i feel like this can happen in Australia too... or maybe it's just a big 4 thing. oh wait, big 4 doesn't even have time off in lieu, and when they give it to you there's terms and conditions attached...

    1. Singapore's Big 4 is Security guard, Mc Donald's, Recycler and Taxi driver (SMRT)
      Same, no time off in lieu

  2. Caution should be taken when assuming the other side is always greener:

    Dont know how it is like in Perth but there are many level and areas in which the idea of overtime and productivity is taken to extreme. Ever get a quote on getting sometime done like for example at your house/apartment? Dont you get surprised at how long and how much it costs in Australia? Furthermore often there are 'delays' and extra costs involved for 'unforeseen' problems.

    Well even the Australian government (state and Federal) have similar problems. Nothing gets done in time and on budget. Look at the council workers and road workers and you will know why.

    No motivation to work hard and be productive. Unless there is a penalty clause for late handover the contractor doesnt care since you the buyer/owner are indirectly paying for any overtime involved for longer unexpected work.

    Some people in public service who do shiftwork can be even worse (slow down 2 hours before handover)

    For the last 20 years I tell people that the Australian society is more socialist than Communist China. :p

    Of course not everyone is like that in Australia (in fact if its not the minority supporting the majority the Australian economy will go to waste) but certainly something (actually one of the rare things) I missed from Singapore.

    The Aussies can do..... but it will cost you (extra) time and money

  3. No place is perfect and the people do have a choice by submitting their votes properly.