Unhealthy workaholic culture needs to change as long hours =/= hard work, says S'pore lawyer

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | February 13, 2022, 11:55 AM

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COMMENTARY: "Bosses should bear in mind that punishing working conditions are not a rite of passage; they are actually counterproductive."

Do punishingly long hours equate to working hard?  Not necessarily, lawyer Alexander Woon argues. Instead, he advocates for companies and employers to focus on innovation and respect boundary-setting in order to establish much-needed work-life sustainability for employees. 

Alexander Woon is a Lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences, School of Law, and practises law as Of Counsel with RHTLaw Asia. He was previously Deputy Director of the Office of Transformation and Innovation (Judiciary) as well as a Deputy Public Prosecutor in the Financial and Technology Crime Division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

By Alexander Woon

My worst working day started at 8:30am and didn’t finish until 4am.

I was interviewing witnesses the entire day, with only brief pauses for lunch and dinner. I stumbled to the roadside and called a cab, reached home, showered and crashed into bed only to awaken a few short hours later to start all over again at 9am in the office.

That day was better — I ended at 2am, I think.

At the time, I was working on a high profile court case, which in the end stretched on for months. I would come into the office every day at 8:30am, be in court by 9:30am, head back to the office at 6pm, and then work until 2am.

Meals were irregular, at whatever time I could get them. I piled back on all the weight I had been struggling to lose over the last year, and then some, as I unthinkingly ate comforting junk food.

What I’m describing is no surprise to many lawyers. Some probably have it worse.

This is the reality of lawyering. It’s not “Suits”. We don’t rock up to court and win with a cocky smile and sharp turn of phrase. It’s a lot of hard, tiring, sometimes unnecessary work.

I once spent an entire week sifting through boxes of 20-year-old documents, picking out rusted staples and dead cockroaches, so that we could find the evidence we needed for a corruption prosecution.

My blood pressure was borderline high, despite me only being in my late 20s. My doctor told me I had to do something. I had headaches. I once had unexplained chest palpitations.

This is what set me thinking about sustainable working. It’s not enough to have a day off here and there — your brain still continues to think and worry about work. Neither is it enough time for your body to recover from the physical effects of stress and lack of sleep.

As one of my bosses once joked (with a great deal of truth): “When we started this case, you still had hair!”

Sustainable working — whether it’s in the legal field or other industries — means changing your entire lifestyle to ensure that work remains, on average, at a level that is not injurious to your health. Sure, there might be a crunch once in a while, but it should be rare enough that it is considered a crunch and not just “another day at the office”.

The great exodus

Law Society President Adrian Tan has sounded the alarm as a record number of junior lawyers left the profession last year.

The pandemic is probably a major cause, with many people feeling burnt out. This is not unique to law. Working from home is great if you have space and control over your environment, but it’s stressful for those who live in cramped communal spaces.

Further, some offices make the mistake of assuming that just because you can work anywhere, you can also work anytime. This 24/7 mentality erodes private life and accelerates burnout.

Another reason, which is not new, is that many lawyers have had enough. Mid-career attrition has always been a problem in the legal sector. Lawyers go off to become actors, or make tea, or start Awfully Chocolate.

How to lose a lawyer in 10 days

There are many reasons why junior lawyers may leave practice.

First, the practice of law is not for everyone. It is not glamorous. Those who are in it for the prestige will be quickly disillusioned.

The hours are long and often thankless. For court lawyers, litigation is uncertain and there will be many days, no matter how good a lawyer you are, when you will be on the losing side of a case.

Law can also be competitive and confrontational, and you will sometimes find yourself dealing with unpleasant, aggravating people. There is no shame in saying this is not the life for you.

Second, the inherent rigours of a legal career are made worse by bad bosses. I was extremely fortunate to have had good bosses who always made me feel like I added value.

There are many who are not so lucky – stories abound of bosses who regularly scream at, demean, and even sometimes physically assault their associates.

Even if not actually abusive, some bosses are just workaholics who do not respect boundaries. They demand work at ridiculous and unreasonable hours.

Third, Singapore has an unhealthy workaholic culture in general. Even if the boss says that work-life balance is important, often the employees don’t take that at face value and continue to insist on clocking extra “face time”.

Indeed, sometimes it is not the boss, but rather those in middle management that put pressure on juniors and create extra work because they try to anticipate the needs of the top. The workaholic culture also creates peer pressure on juniors to work long hours, just because “that is the way things are done”, and doing any less invites snide comments and sideways glances.

During periods when I was not involved in serious litigation, I would make it a point to leave the office promptly every day at 6pm, the stated knock-off time.

A colleague of mine remarked that my life was “so good”. But this comment reveals the unhealthy, Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship that Singaporeans have with work.

I was paid to be there from 8:30am to 6pm. It should have been normal for me to leave at 6pm.

It is the assumption that people should be working late, for no extra pay, that is abnormal and unhealthy.

Crisis and Opportunity

Is the attrition rate of young lawyers a problem, or could it become a problem? Not necessarily.

First, the reduction in the number of junior lawyers may actually benefit the legal system as a whole. When manpower is (relatively) cheap and plentiful, there is no incentive to change the business model. That is bad for legal innovation.

When bosses learn that they can no longer simply throw man-hours at a problem to make it go away, suddenly there is a real incentive to upskill existing workers, make them efficient, streamline processes, and adopt new technology.

Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. The cost and time savings brought about by innovation can then be passed on to clients. This helps with ensuring that legal representation is kept affordable, a key principle of access to justice.

It also is better for our legal sector, which the public sector has long been saying needs to evolve to keep up with times. The model for legal services is relatively static, while other industries are going online, decentralising, and becoming more user-centric.

Medicine, for example, is now going online with the rise of telemedicine apps like Doctor Anywhere. Yet, we do not see such innovation taking place in law.

Second, the junior lawyers who leave the legal profession do not simply disappear, and can actually go on to productively contribute elsewhere in society. They become legal technologists, legal designers, legal knowledge management specialists, legal educators or in-house counsel.

Those who take on these law-adjacent jobs are known as allied legal professionals, and the Chief Justice has predicted increasing demand for their skill sets in the years to come.

Third, a scarcity of junior lawyers may actually help with improving the conditions for those who do stay on. Abusive bosses get away with being abusive because juniors feel replaceable. When juniors are not replaceable, it gives them more bargaining power in the workplace and empowers them to stand up to bullying.

So, attrition among junior lawyers is not necessarily a bad thing.

Fixing the problem

Nonetheless, there is obviously a morale problem among junior lawyers. So how might we go about fixing it?

First, the culture needs to change. Senior lawyers often think that hard work and long hours are the same thing. This is wrong – you can work hard without working long hours. It is about maximising productivity, not maximising man-hours.

Bosses need to encourage their employees to be efficient. This means leveraging technology and streamlining processes.

Bosses should bear in mind that punishing working conditions are not a rite of passage; they are actually counterproductive. The more overworked and sleep-deprived, the more likely lawyers are to make mistakes, which can be extremely dangerous to clients.

Second, bosses must also model behaviour. Because Singapore has a workaholic culture, it is not enough to tell your employees that they should go home on time or take care of themselves. If they see the boss is not walking the talk, they will assume that they will be subtly punished if they take these statements at face value.

Netflix CEO Reid Hastings has said that he makes it a point to take lots of leave every year, as Netflix employees would otherwise hesitate to take advantage of the company’s unlimited leave policy.

If senior lawyers continue to model a workaholic lifestyle, the juniors will naturally follow. Senior lawyers should, for the sake of their firms, learn also to relax a bit, even if this is not in their natures.

Third, cut unnecessary work. There is some work that is in fact urgent and necessary: there are court deadlines, negotiation deadlines, and clients to appease. But there is also a lot of work that is unnecessary – administration, procedure, and sometimes excessive research.

You can put in an infinite amount of effort for an infinitesimal gain. The reality in law is that you will never know if you have covered everything — something can always come up, or there might be a new case that just came out yesterday or a case somewhere in the wider world — and you have to make an executive decision to say enough is enough. It is a resource allocation issue.

The unfortunate reality in Singapore is that the reward for being efficient is yet more work — this needs to change as it is a recipe for burnout. If we are to build a sustainable work culture, the time saved by cutting unnecessary work and becoming more efficient should be devoted to giving employees more free time, not making them take on yet more work.

Work-life sustainability needs to be on our agenda

The woes of the legal profession might be viewed with a certain amount of schadenfreude (a German word meaning joy at the misfortune of others). These are “first world problems”, some might say, since lawyers are well-compensated for their time and trouble.

But the lessons from the legal profession are applicable to many other white-collar professions across Singapore. Junior doctors, for example, are reportedly also subject to gruelling working conditions. This is dangerous not just to the medical profession but to patients as well.

This is not just a story about law; it is a story about Singapore.

Singaporeans have always been told to study and then work hard. We have sacrificed much on the altar of productivity. It has paid immense dividends in economic terms.

But we are now seeing the true costs in terms of mental and social health. Our children, for example, are more stressed than ever and mental illness is on the rise.

Environmental sustainability is a priority now for all businesses. We recognise that it is an existential issue for our planet and our species.

Work-life sustainability should likewise be on the agenda — unsustainable work culture is damaging to individuals and society, and its effects are likely to be felt even sooner.

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Top photo by Andrew Koay.