For six years, Ms Amy Yee (pictured above), 38, ran a tuition centre, which had up to 50 students at its busiest.
Not only did she rarely have days off, but she also often clocked 12-hour days in the two months before school mid-year and year-end examinations.
Although she had four part-time tutors helping her conduct weekend classes, she was the only full-time staff.
Ms Yee, a single mother, found it stressful being her own boss and sometimes woke up in the middle of the night because she was thinking about her business, for instance, how to recruit more students or whether she had done the invoices.
Ms Yee, whose daughter Zoe Tan is a 12-year-old Secondary 1 student, says: “I felt that if I didn’t slow down, my health wouldn’t be able to take it.”
This played a role in her decision not to renew the lease on her workplace when it came up late last year, though she continues to give tuition for a living.
There are others in Singapore like her who are stepping off the relentless treadmill of work or seeking other ways to ease work-related stress.
In South Korea, a mother of three recently died of a heart attack a week after returning from her maternity leave to clock 12-hour work days. Her death sparked widespread soul-searching in the country over its workaholic culture.
While the problem may not be as bad in Singapore and the work hours may not be as inordinately long, thinking about work can take up so much head space that it spills over into one’s personal life.
Only an hour a day with her son
As vice-president in human resources at an asset management firm, Ms Deborah Yuen (pictured above) checked her iPhone and BlackBerry frequently and even during family vacations to keep up with work e-mails. Her only child, Joshua, who is now a six-year-old Primary 1 pupil, sometimes asked her to put down the devices.
Her work hours were not unusual in Singapore: She typically worked from 8.30am and returned home after 7pm.
However, she also had to make regular conference calls with United States-based business associates at night – this often took two hours, including for preparatory work.
Last April, Ms Yuen, 40, decided to quit her job of 11/2 years as she realised she was not spending enough quality time with her son.
She typically had only about an hour with him during each work day.
At the beginning of this year, after co-founding a recruitment consultancy, she started working from home a few hours a day. A driven person, she ruled out part-time work.
“Knowing myself, if I worked part-time, it would have been more like full-time. It’s difficult for me to put down my work. Doing something on my own, I can control my time and manage my own engagements,” says Ms Yuen, whose 40-year-old husband works in banking.
“I have never looked back in terms of taking my career break. With my own business, I can have the balance between work and family that I want in my life.”
Although working long hours is common in Singapore and other Asian countries with competitive work cultures, governments and companies are embracing alternative work arrangements – such as flexible hours and telecommuting – to help employees better integrate their work with personal and family commitments.
The authorities in Japan, which has a national health crisis known as karoshi, or death from overwork, launched its latest work-life balance campaign last month.
It urges employers to let workers off at around 3pm on the last Friday of every month.
In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board is among the organisations that have initiatives promoting resilience, health and mental well-being.
Many companies in Singapore also organise corporate social responsibility schemes to encourage workers to dedicate time for community work, which can enhance their well-being and reduce work stress, notes Ms Irene Chu, a senior lecturer in human resource management at SIM University.
Mr Mohamad Hamdan Ismail, 40, coped with the stress of doing shift work through a tried-and-tested means of increasing well-being: exercise.
For six years, his monthly routine as a technician consisted of three different shifts, including an overnight one. He felt stressed and tired as he could not sleep well.
So he read articles on health “because I had to adapt to my new environment, having worked office hours previously. I needed to adjust my lifestyle”.
In 2008, he started dragon boating and developed a passion for the sport, qualifying last year as a coach at Water-Venture, a community programme under the People’s Association that includes water and adventure sports. He also encouraged his four children, aged six to 14, to engage in sports regularly, including dragon boating, kayaking and cycling.
“I feel the difference in terms of feeling less work stress and feeling more energetic,” says Mr Hamdan.
He has since stopped doing shift work after acquiring further job qualifications and moving to his current position as an assistant project engineer in the construction industry.
While there are many firms that promote health and fitness initiatives for employees, some see a need for a more holistic way for companies to alleviate stress at work.
Mrs Sher-li Torrey is the founder of Mums@Work Singapore and the co-founder of Career Navigators, both of which help women find work-life balance. She says: “There is an increasing need to look at diverse approaches in companies in incorporating changes in life stages.
“For example, if an employee has to look after a sick parent, she or he enters a life stage where stress on the personal front is very high. It is therefore important for companies to be aware of this change and help accommodate the employee.”
Having at least some stress at work is inescapable, so learning how to destress is part of the game, she adds.
How family-friendly employers help
Mr Kenny Ng, 39, assistant vice president at OCBC Bank‘s global consumer financial services department, is able to avoid the stress that childcare considerations can bring: His three children have been attending the in-house childcare centre at the building where he works.
OCBC Bank also offers other work-life initiatives, such as a career break scheme, where employees can take three months’ unpaid sabbatical leave for any reason, such as to do volunteer work or to travel.
Another initiative is the bank’s Primary School Leaving Examination leave scheme which lets parents carry forward up to three weeks of annual leave if their child is taking the PSLE the following year.
Mr Ng’s two daughters, Clarissa, six, and Clariel, three, have been at the in-house childcare centre at his workplace since they were 18 months old.
His oldest child, Kaiden, nine, was also in the same centre, which accepts children up to the age of six. He is now cared for by his grandparents.
Mr Ng says he has peace of mind because he can respond to any medical situations instantly, instead of having to rush to a childcare centre located farther away.
Clarissa ran a fever at the end of last year and he was able to almost immediately take her to the doctor. He returned home with her and continued working from home via the company’s remote working system.
He sometimes visits the childcare centre during breaks at work.
He says: “It helps to see the kids. Being close to my kids is a way for me to destress.”
What to consider if you want to leave a stressful job
– Discuss the move with your family, especially your spouse, exploring the possible benefits and challenges it will bring.
– Think about what you want to do after you stop work. How are you going to spend your free time? Will it involve spending time with your family, doing charity work or starting a new business? Write a list of what you plan to do, as well as what you hope to achieve. For instance, you might aim for a healthier lifestyle by going for a run every other morning.
– Budget for at least six months ahead if you intend to look for a new job. If you do not plan to work, look at the family income and expenses and calculate the adjustments you have to make before throwing in the towel. Discuss this with family members because it will have an impact on them. For example, the children may have to stop their enrichment classes temporarily.
– Reassign roles and duties within the family. Because your role and that of your spouse will change as a single-income family, list what is expected of you, your spouse and your children after this change.
– Decide if you will eventually return to work or if you never want to. For many people, their identity is tied to their occupation. Leaving work, even if it is by choice, changes one’s identity. Sometimes, people sink into depression if they are not clear about their decisions regarding work. Be confident about your decision and write down why you took it, a move that can help you get through days when you feel regret.
– If you decide to look for a new job, plan the duration of the break and when to start searching for a job. Attending skills-training courses and workshops can make a real difference in helping you to restart your career.
The information is provided by Ms Sher-li Torrey, founder of Mums@Work Singapore and co-founder of Career Navigators, organisations that help address issues related to work-life balance, including returning to work after a career gap.
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times
(Photos: The Straits Times)