Singaporean finance professionals risk burnout by refusing to switch off on vacation

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The Christmas holiday season is fast approaching, but while finance professionals in Singapore may be technically 'on leave' for much of this period, they may well still be in touch with the office – primarily because they are too afraid to delegate tasks to colleagues.

According to a new poll by eFinancialCareers, only 19% of financial services professionals in Singapore spend their holidays completely free from work-related calls and emails. An overwhelming 81% say they remain contactable while on annual leave.

Of this on-duty majority, 41% don’t check emails but do take urgent phone calls, while a significant number (34%) admit to constantly checking their mobile devices so they can follow up on priority tasks. A further 6% are expected to work and be on call throughout their holiday.

“On the one hand, finance professionals want a good work-life balance, but on the other, many of them aren’t even willing to take proper statutory breaks,” says Paul Heng, founder of NeXT Corporate Coaching Services in Singapore. “Sometimes it’s because they need to always stay in touch with the financial markets, but added to this is a Singaporean trait called kaisu-ism – being afraid of losing out to others.”

Singaporeans often feel uncomfortable delegating work to colleagues while they are on leave, explains Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre in Singapore. “Staying in touch with the office is a way of them staying in control as it decreases their anxiety of things falling apart or having someone else take over. They feel they put too much effort into their work to just walk away or trust others.”

Compared with their counterparts in other developed financial markets, Singaporeans have a “much higher sense of ownership of their work”, adds Ben Batten, country general manager of recruitment firm Volt in Singapore. “They don’t tend to delegate – even for longer periods, for example maternity leave, it’s still not common for a temp to replace the person. Plus connectivity in Singapore is so good, even on MRT subway trains, making it even easier to check emails here.”

This urge to stay contactable is all the more extreme in the “competitive and risky” financial services sector, says Koh. “It’s the norm to be on guard and go the extra mile for the company, boss and clients, especially when you’re getting paid so much. Highly stimulated finance professionals can find it uncomfortable to relax and may worry that by relaxing others will overtake them. Some actually like it when colleagues call them for help while they’re on leave because it shows how valuable they are.”

Taking too many holidays where work remains a focus can lead to job dissatisfaction, falling productivity and ultimately burn-out, according to the experts we spoke to. “Burn-out happens to a pretty large extent – I know of folks in the IB industry not taking leave for up to five years, but our bodies just aren’t wired to work continuously. If I don’t listen to my body, I will burn out and this may cause more serious medical conditions,” says Heng from NeXT Corporate Coaching. “Some supervisors are the worst culprits here – they don’t set a good example and frown upon employees who dare ask for a break.”

Heng says to help avoid burn-out finance professionals in Singapore must set clear boundaries with colleagues and managers before they go on holiday. “To cut yourself off totally may not be realistic, so respond to time-sensitive emails, but restrict yourself to checking your inbox X no of minutes during vacation days. However, if your job allows, try to disconnect totally and be present with your loved ones. This will free your mind from work and you will return recharged and be much more productive.”

Psychologist Koh recommends planning your annual leave as far in advance as possible. “Proper time management can help you plan your time away and means you take less work with you. Also try to take a holiday during low periods when there’s less work and set rules for when a colleague can contact you, limiting yourself to one source. Ultimately, it’s your personal discipline that matters most – otherwise none of this will work.”

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