The state of work in Singapore

May 13, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Stephen Frost
CSR Asia

Work has been in the news in Singapore this week, with the release of a survey exposing some revealing trends. They survey covered numerous sectors, but one of the findings reported initially was that half of the finance professionals in the city-state would leave their jobs if the opportunity arose. And of those, 21 per cent said that they wanted a better work-life balance (35 per cent said they would jump ship if offered better pay).

Recruitment firm Robert Half, which conducted the survey, said that half of finance professionals in Singapore expressed dissatisfaction with their employment, even as concerns over job security and waning career prospects intensify in the downturn. The firm surveyed more than 3,500 finance professionals across 14 countries last October. The survey found that only 53 per cent of the 200 Singapore respondents were satisfied with their jobs – the second lowest globally after Japan, where 47 per cent of its financial workforce said they were satisfied with their jobs.

Tim Hird, managing director of Robert Half Singapore, said the survey results show that “job satisfaction and company loyalty will continue to be tested as companies tackle the challenges posed by the economic downturn, including those related to their human capital”.

Hird has it right when he says that to attract and retain staff, companies should include training and career advancement opportunities, having leaders and mentors, and other non-monetary incentives that go towards personal development and a healthy work-life balance.

The implications of this survey for a country aiming to retain its position as a financial hub are significant. If half of all finance professionals are dissatisfied with their jobs, it will be tough for Singapore to attract the best people and keep them. This is particularly pertinent for a country that is spending a great deal of money to attract high-paid foreign professionals (many of them who will be employed in the finance sector).

Other findings in the Robert Half survey point to some disturbing trends in the workplace more generally.

The first is that employees here are turning up for work despite being sick. According to the survey, 61 per cent of Singaporean respondents still go to work when they are sick because they are scared of falling behind on their work; the highest rates of 6,000 polled across 20 countries including the United States and Japan.

52 per cent of Singaporeans fear that too many sick days could go against them, while 50 per cent did not want to be perceived by superiors and peers as not working, the highest rates among those surveyed.

Levels of stress are not surprisingly high; globally, Singapore ranks only second to Japan, with 69 per cent and 71 per cent of respondents, respectively, who expect workplace stress levels to rise this year. The main reasons cited for the expected increase in stress levels are worries about job security and excessive workloads due to under-staffing.

The survey also showed that the main impact of rising stress levels are lower staff morale (64 per cent) and lower quality of work or service (37 per cent). 32 per cent believed that decreased productivity due to stress-related issues would be the most significant cost to the company, followed by increased employee turnover (24 per cent) and a drop in the quality of work or service (19 per cent).

Singapore ranked highest globally again when it comes to employees checking company emails outside working hours, with 26 per cent spending on average 30 to 44 minutes a day doing this.

The survey demonstrates, yet again, a point CSR Asia has been making for many years; the competitiveness of firms is dependent on the way employees are treated (beyond a decent salary). But in the Singapore context, the issue is even more important. If the city is to maintain its reputation as a financial hub, it needs a stable, professional workforce that is at the very least reasonably satisfied with workplace conditions. That Singapore ranks so highly on many levels of dissatisfaction in the workplace should serve as a warning for the government that its national competitiveness is at risk. If the government wants to attract the best people from abroad (as it is currently doing), then it might want to consider what role employers could play to assist that.

It doesn’t make sense for the Singapore government on the one hand to promote the country as an attractive destination for highly-paid professionals when on the other hand companies seem to be doing so poorly when it comes to workplace conditions and employee relations. Perhaps it is time for the government to play an active role in encouraging companies to improve their social responsibility as part of improving Singapore’s national competitiveness.

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