Could unrealistic expectations be why Singaporeans are unhappy?

Are Singapore workers unsatisfied with their employers because their expectations are too high?

A new Mercer study found that Singapore workers are less engaged and satisfied with their employers than the rest of the world.

The findings are worrying, as Singapore was ranked overall in the bottom three of Asia-Pacific countries, alongside South Korea and Japan.

Of top concern is the fact that employee engagement levels in the Southeast Asian country have been on a downward slide over the last few years, contradicting the growing trend seeing globally.

But how seriously should these figures be taken?

According to the study, the lower levels of happiness can be linked to two factors – namely lack of innovation and career development.

Almost a third said that the companies they work for were not demonstrating continuous innovation, while a fifth indicated that they were not receiving enough performance feedback from their immediate bosses.

Yet, another report released in June this year found that Singapore, South Korea and Japan – bottom three on this new list – were the three most innovative countries in Asia.

That study, titled Global Innovation Index 2017 and conducted by Insead, Cornell University and the World Intellectual Property Organization, measured countries on their innovation input as well as quality of talent, among others. Singapore was top five, if not first in all categories.

One question comes to mind immediately: Why is there a gap between how Singapore talents feel, and the good work companies there are doing, assuming both sides have valid points?

Some business leaders told HRM Magazine recently that one possible reason could be that Singaporeans have higher expectations than most other countries, and want more out of their jobs.

To understand why this is a possibility, one would have to look back at Singapore’s rapid rise as an economic superpower.

As Tan Ern Ser, an associate professor of Sociology and academic adviser to the Institute of Policy Studies Social Lab at the National University of Singapore, wrote in an essay on Today last year, Singaporeans are desperate to keep alive the “Singapore Dream” – an ambition that likely emerged some time in the early-1980s as the country climbed from third world to first world status in less than 20 years.

Achieving this “Dream” has had huge impact on all levels of Singapore society, where the concept of 5Cs - cash, car, credit card, condo, country club membership, Tan wrote, “not only spelled the ‘good life’, but conveyed the comforting idea that class origin does not determine destiny.

“In the popular imagination, therefore, class, while present, does not quite matter,” he continued.

Today, Singaporeans continue to be consumed and influenced by their pursuit of the “good life”. As positive a goal as it is, the stress that comes with trying to climb up the social ladder can eat away at even the very best of them.

In the 21st century, “low-income Singaporeans are concerned about stagnant wages, the high cost of living and rising income inequality…middle-class people worry about not being able to live the secure, comfortable life they believe they deserve from having been relatively successful in the mobility game,” Tan elaborated.

“They are also concerned about their children not being able to live the ‘Singapore Dream’, given the rise in property and car prices over the past decade and uncertainties over whether a university degree can still guarantee a good career in future.”

And so, this ambition could also have very well transpired in other manners. It could have led to a culture of unrealistic expectations among workers in terms of what they want from their jobs, including a fast career progression track, and robust salary increments, so as to reach their goals fast.

This laser-beam focus to succeed against all odds also means workers are determined and motivated to perform their best at work, and so they would also expect to work for only the best companies that are innovative in their practices and leaders in their respective industries that will be able to help them make their riches.

But unmet expectations are not just because of purely financial reasons. For the younger group of workers, unhappiness arises when they don’t get the novel experience they seek.

A majority of Singaporean youth agreed in an UBS study last year that amassing experience and not material possessions, is the most important form of wealth and source of job satisfaction for them.

That study found that the industries currently dominant in Singapore are still largely traditional in their practices, but that millennials aspire to work for more innovative organisations.

It’s hard to please all segments of their workforce, and perhaps workers have too high expectations, but it’s always a good time for employers and HR teams to study and reassess what their people really want and need.   

For more of HRM Asia's take on today's real world business issues, head to the dedicated Analysis forum.

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