I’m a S’porean who is stressed by the thought of doing nothing, & I don’t think a break will help

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Tanya Ong | June 29, 09:54 am


It seems like Singaporeans are a really stressed out bunch.

Stressed by the thought of being unproductive

According to a survey commissioned by Sentosa that polled 600 Singaporeans and permanent residents in April this year, half were stressed out by the thought of doing nothing.

And when these people are taking a break, about 57 per cent actually felt that “the time spent on such breaks could have been used for something more productive”.

Three in 10 respondents also said they did not know how to relax.

Singapore is obsessed with results

What could possibly be some reasons for these rather alarming survey results?

In conjunction with the release of these findings, Today also reported on a panel discussion, where three experts in the fields of mental health and sociology offered their views on why the above was the case.

National University of Singapore (NUS) Assistant Professor Sin Harng Luh was quoted saying that Singaporeans incessantly strive for excellence, hoping to do more at a quicker pace.

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser noted that Singapore is obsessed with KPIs.

Now what they said isn’t new, of course. The fact that Singaporeans are obsessed with results is hardly a revelation to any of us.

I could actually relate to the survey results

Being stressed out by the thought of being unproductive sounds almost ridiculous and stupid when you think about it, but I realised that I could relate.

After all, just yesterday, I dragged myself to work after only four fitful hours of rest the night before. All because I had two meetings I had to attend during the day.

(I only managed to get four hours of sleep because I was having difficulties sleeping, likely due to work-related stress or personal worries.)

I could have chosen to call in sick and stay at home to rest. But here’s the thing — I chose not to do so.

Unless I am suffering from a debilitating illness, it is likely that I will almost always show up at work.

And in writing this, I’ve figured out why that’s the case, too: it’s because I have spent a good portion of my life worrying about being “unproductive”, and the fear that I was wasting my time (and others’!) constantly gnaws at me.

As a student, I had no chill

Many Singaporean kids, including myself, have been conditioned from a young age to always feel the need to use our time in “fruitful ways”.

As a student, I recall spending my school holidays catching up on subjects that I was weaker in. I would diligently work through assessment books, past-year papers and ten-year-series — on top of the homework that was assigned.

When I was in secondary school and junior college, I had two CCAs and went for extra-curricular activities five times a week on average.

This was no different in university. I even spent my school breaks going for internships because I was told that it would be advantageous to accumulate some work experience before actually starting work.

Basically, I could never take a break without feeling worried that I was relaxing too much.

Nobody explicitly told me that I had to do all this extra work or sign up for all these CCAs. I did it because I had grown to fear that not doing so would put me at a disadvantage, or that I would be perceived as a lesser individual.


And looking back (hindsight is always 20/20, they say), while I enjoyed my schooling years (the packed schedules could sometimes be fun!), I think I could definitely afford to just chill a little more.

We all exist in a digital age

Now, as a working adult, I witness how these very same productivity-related anxieties can be exacerbated by technology.

Work hours have become less clearly defined because we are technically “available” as long as we have an internet connection.

When a work-related WhatsApp message or email comes in at 10pm, we may choose not to read or respond to it, but then a thought creeps in: Would my colleague think that I’m being irresponsible if I do not reply? Would my boss think any less of me?

The nature of technology has radically altered the way we think, work, and think about work.

It has become increasingly difficult to “switch off” from work, too. Especially for those whose jobs are effectively intertwined with social media, it is no longer possible to casually browse and consume social media without thinking about work.

It’s good to take breaks, but is it enough?

There can be plenty of external circumstances (e.g. technology, poor work culture, endless KPIs etc.) that may make us feel like we always need to be productive.

Now, to be fair, keeping busy can bring great satisfaction — plenty of people get bored and restless if they don’t constantly have something to do.

However, when this busy-ness stems from anxieties of not being able to live up to others’ (and our own) expectations, as well as feelings of inadequacy, it can take a toll on one’s mental health.

Work burnout, defined as chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, is a very legitimate thing among Singaporeans.

Taking frequent breaks would certainly go a long way to prevent this, but I wonder if it goes beyond the seemingly simple solution of taking breaks.

Perhaps we also need to recognise how we can better manage the demands of work in our modern society.

Tackling the root of our insecurities

Of the experts who spoke on the panel regarding the survey, I’m most inclined to agree with the comments made by Institute of Mental Health medical board chairman Daniel Fung.

He reportedly said it’s impossible to achieve “work-life balance” in the way we all may think of it, instead advocating a “more nuanced understanding of blending work and life”.

In view of how the nature of our work has evolved in the digital age, I do think it’s extremely difficult for us to completely detach ourselves from technology — or, indeed, work.

Hence, the question in my view should not be “can we detach?”, but rather, how we can navigate this landscape in a manner that is healthy for our mental and emotional well-being.

Work needs to be carried out in a sustainable fashion. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be as straightforward as choosing to ignore a work-related message after office hours.

Instead, it is about tackling the root of our insecurities through learning to see ourselves as (very much human) individuals and not as output-generating machines.

Easier said than done, but we have to try.

Top photo via Eutah Mizushima, Unsplash.

About Tanya Ong

Tanya hopes to own a roller skate disco one day.

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