January 7, 2019

Have you ever been tasked with a last-minute assignment with a rushed deadline? With no other option, you buckle down, power through, and by sheer resolve, manage to do the impossible, completing the task in record-breaking time. We often underestimate ourselves when it comes to our work productivity, but with the right amount of pressure, we can accomplish more in fewer hours.

Most of us in Singapore work eight hours a day. According to the Employment Act, we’re also not allowed contractually to work more than 44 hours a week. Still, about 66% of Singaporeans feel obligated to work beyond their contracted hours, reveals Morgan McKinley’s Working Hours Survey, while 47% of the workforce actually go beyond the 44-hour work week, based on research from the 2016 Randstad Award.

We could be faced with an insurmountable to-do list, or are simply eager to impress our bosses, but the fact is, such long hours takes a toll on us and our companies. According to a 2017 study published in the European Heart Journal, those who spend 55 hours and above at work each week are more at risk of developing heart problems. They are more vulnerable to atrial fibrillation, where your heart beats rapidly and irregularly, potentially resulting in heart failure and stroke.

It’s worse if you’ve got a sedentary job. Imagine sitting down for hours on end and slouching in front of your computer, which is only wrecking your vision and giving you migraines. Add to that an office with minimal access to sunlight and poor air circulation. All this does not make for a happy, healthy workplace. The more time you spend in the office, the less time you’ll have for yourself too. Bid farewell to regular nights out with friends and family, and those weekly workout sessions. You’ll be too mentally exhausted to even run half a mile. Working late also means those quiet, solitary evenings to wind down with Netflix will be reduced to a short hour before bedtime.

This creates an imbalance that damages your quality of life, and unhappy workers are unproductive workers. Unfortunately, this is a prevalent issue in Singapore, where Jobstreet’s Job Happiness Index 2017 found that nearly half the population is unhappy at work. When employees are pushed beyond their limits and burnt out, more mistakes are bound to be made too. As a writer, I know for a fact that staring at long walls of text all day can lead to a few spelling errors, grammar slips and other careless mistakes.

So what’s the solution? Should we go from five-day work weeks to four, or opt to clock just six hours a day?

In Denmark, the average work week is 37 hours. Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, also employed a four-day, 32-hour work week for two months in 2018. The experiment proved so effective in boosting attendance, productivity and creativity that the firm is working to make it a permanent change. There are even advocates for the four-hour work day. Historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Henri Poincare and Thomas Jefferson all famously dedicated just four hours out of each day to actual work—usually the four hours are broken down into shorter stretches of time throughout the day.

The four-hour work day is a radical notion—not entirely impossible or infeasible, but perhaps a little unrealistic for the majority of us. Right now, eight hours a day seems fairly reasonable. To avoid taking too much of a risk, companies could start by cutting an hour a day, while making sure employees go home when they should. Any workaholic will be forced to have a life, while the unmotivated will be empowered to hunker down.

At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing the nature of your work. If a task can be completed in less time, don’t stretch it out. The company culture plays a part in this as well. It’s generally frowned upon if an employee is quick to finish their work and spends the rest of the day watching videos and playing games. Thus, to appease their employers, they take their time to appear busy and productive. One way to combat this is to offer more flexibility, allowing people to knock off as early as they want, as long as they’ve finished their work for the day. It’s incentive enough to motivate them to hustle harder, smarter and faster.

Of course, this only applies to certain occupations. Front-line workers can’t escape long hours. Things get trickier when shift work and group projects are involved. Film production, for instance, is notorious for its 12- to 16-hour work days, and it’s even more challenging for first responders. For the Svartedalen retirement home in Sweden, which once championed the six-hour work day, it’s become too expensive to keep up with—the city spent £1 million, hiring 17 staff members to cover the extra hours. If it’s a regular white-collar job, on the flip side, shortening the hours could do your business a lot of good.