It's A Tough Job: Why Do These Officers Do It?

More brickbats than bouquets. Projects shelved after months of hard work. And high expectations that continue to rise. Public officers today face heat from all sides. Yet some of them remain committed and fired up about their work. Challenge finds out the reasons behind their passion.

The lyrics from hip hop artist Pharrell Williams’ hit single “Happy” sound simple but its message about seeking happiness is powerful, judging by the nearly 450 million views of its official music video on YouTube.

In the video, a kitchen assistant, a teacher and a construction worker groove and sing along to the catchy tune. Indeed, employees finding happiness – including motivation – at work has become a much talked about topic.

Just in April this year, the Singapore Human Resources Institute and consulting firm Align Group launched the National Workplace Happiness Survey 2014 to measure how happy our employees are at the workplace. Based on the PERMA Model of positive psychology, happiness is defined as going beyond positive emotions – it includes engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishments. The survey results are expected to be out this month.

Meanwhile, literature on motivating staff has been flying off the shelves. New York Times bestseller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink sheds light on how organisations can get workers to happily give their best at work. It argued that dishing out external monetary rewards would not be as effective as stoking intrinsic motivational forces, such as giving employees autonomy over tasks, helping them to achieve mastery in skills and ensuring they see purpose in what they are doing.

Work happiness is not a new concept though. Authors Dan Baker, Cathy Greenberg and Collins Hemingway of What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better, wrote how research in 1949 and the 1980s already showed that employees highly value being appreciated at work, which adds to their happiness.

But what if such acts of appreciation are few and far between? Today with demands on public officers increasing, receiving a heartfelt “thank you” from anyone is considered a bonus rather than the norm. How do officers then keep their spirits up, and continue serving the public with drive?


Believe that your work
is meaningful

Mr Adrian Rakesh, Manager of Community Partnership Division (North West) at the Land Transport Authority (LTA), feels good helping the public to solve its problems.

He has to work beyond official hours whenever road and MRT works occur in his district, or when the LTA announces plans to upgrade public transport services. After two years on the job, Mr Adrian is used to interacting with all types of people, when he handles enquiries from the public in the day (“why does it take the government so long to improve the bus system!”) and attends grassroots meetings in the evenings to explain the LTA’s latest policies.

Asked if he has had to deal with nasty members of the public, the mild-mannered man replied quietly: “I cannot please 100% of people. If I can make 95% of people happy, I’ve done my job.” Calling himself a change agent, he hopes his work changes people’s perception towards the LTA.

And though he may be “small” and “get pushed around”, Mr Adrian takes it in his stride by focusing on the bigger picture. “Have you seen dominos falling? The end result is an amazing display,” he said, alluding to the importance of each domino despite its size.

A few years ago he and his colleagues helped unhappy residents at Sunset Way understand the LTA’s scope of work at a junction that connected their homes to the main road. To improve traffic flow there, the LTA had to realign parts of the road in sections to rebuild the curb and repaint the road markings. Because not all of the residents were aware of what was being done, they thought the government was closing off the lane entirely.

After getting angry calls and emails from them, Mr Adrian and his colleagues went to the site to explain what the LTA was doing. The residents ended up appreciating its efforts to improve traffic conditions and one even apologised for their outburst. They also started a neighbourhood committee to facilitate better communication with the agency, said Mr Adrian.

Mr Leong Wei Jian too has had his fair share of trials in his two years as Lead Strategist at the Strategic Policy Office (SPO), Public Service Division. His main task is to influence public agencies to act on ideas or trends that would affect the government or country in 10 to 15 years.

That’s not an easy job because ministries are usually too caught up with current-day problems to look at issues in the future, said Mr Leong. If they do not come onboard, a project, which would have taken him and his team months of rigorous research, may be shelved or even “killed”, he said.

Still, the greatest difficulty is that he cannot directly effect change in the agencies. Instead, he recognises the need to engage agencies early and help them see why thinking ahead is relevant to their work.

Compared to his previous stint as a teacher, where he could see the more tangible differences he made to his students’ lives, dealing with abstract ideas as a strategist zaps a little of his drive at work, he admitted.

How does he keep himself motivated then?

“You must have some measure of faith that your work is meaningful,” he said. “I must believe that ultimately my research will help the government be [better] prepared in dealing with changes.”

I cannot please 100% of people. If I can make 95% of people happy, I’ve done my job.

Make progress a priority

Most public officers know that their work is meaningful. But seeing purpose in their jobs alone may not be enough to keep them driven.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, contend that there is another important ingredient – progress.

In the book, the authors analysed 12,000 diary entries by employees of different organisations and found that when employees make real headway in their work, they feel satisfied, joyful and confident of their self-worth. These feel- good effects lead to “positive views of the work and, sometimes, the organisation”, they wrote.

Mr Dan Koh and Ms Chen Sze Leng, both Senior Assistant Directors at the Auditor-General’s Office (AGO), would agree. An independent entity, the AGO audits ministries and public agencies and reports its findings in management letters to the agencies’ management and in annual reports to the President. Mr Koh and Ms Chen gain satisfaction from helping agencies improve their systems for better stewardship of public resources.

Much as it is human nature to be wary of auditors during their yearly checks, Mr Koh admitted to Challenge that this defensive stance is the biggest hurdle he has faced in all his 17 years as an auditor, as he needs officers to understand and trust that auditors are there to work with them to improve the accountability system in the Singapore Public Service.

Ms Chen agrees: “At the AGO we check if there is wastage of resources. I look forward to that, because it helps to ensure proper accountability for the use of public monies. That gives me a sense of achievement and has made me stay in the AGO for five years.”

There needs to be continual effort to communicate, in order to build trust, said Mr Koh. Thus he and Ms Chen will take pains to explain why they need certain or more information from the agencies.

Over at the SPO, Mr Leong “chunks” each project into stages – each stage has a concrete deliverable. In a project that studied how the role of the State is evolving, Mr Leong and his colleagues had some success in piloting their card game at a recent interagency workshop. To him that’s progress, though the impact may seem minor now. “I look at small wins that keep me going.”

He also saw “bigger wins” when he was on the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) secretariat last year. Despite having to run many dialogues on weekday nights and Saturday mornings, he found it tremendously rewarding to see that citizens were willing to communicate with one another, and that made a difference.

“They say things like, ‘I’m as anti-government as I can be. But I want to be the change, that’s why I’m here.’ That’s very powerful. It makes you feel that all your effort is worth it,” said Mr Leong.

Dealing mechanisms

Though they may be highly motivated, officers in tough jobs still need to find their own ways of handling work stress.

When the Population White Paper was released last year with a mention of plans for an estimated population of 6.9 million by 2030, it upset many members of the public who took to the Internet to question the officers who had worked on the Paper.

The person in charge, Ms Ngiam Siew Ying, Director, Policy and Planning Directorate at the National Population and Talent Division, shared with Challenge how her team dealt with that experience.

“For all the hard work that was put in to [design] the policies and recommendations, we stumbled at the final hurdle in delivering the product to the public,” she said candidly. “We picked ourselves up, saw what we could do to fix the problem, and then learnt the lessons we needed to learn.”

Working with committed colleagues who “don’t run away when the going gets tough” helps her cope with the difficulties she meets in her job, she shared. So does “loving the people of Singapore”. She concluded: “I think this goes a long way, and helps me to keep going even when things don’t seem to be going according to plan.”

The idea of “letting go” may sound outrageous to the Public Service, where layers of checks are common and necessary.


Veteran frontline officer Ms R Vahsugi encounters difficult customers regularly. The Constituency Support Executive at West Coast Community Centre (CC) shared that some residents sometimes show up at community events just to get free goodies, or expect immediate responses for services not provided by the CC, and kick up a fuss when they don’t get what they want.

Though their actions do get her feeling down, Ms Vahsugi remains motivated about helping others.

Each time she finds herself struggling to calm an emotional resident, she calls out to a colleague who is her “buddy”.

This buddy system is indispensable at her workplace. When angry customers see more people around, they calm down more easily, explained Ms Vahsugi, who has been with the People’s Association for 26 years.

Ms Vahsugi also taps her own painful experiences – she lives with panic disorder and was depressed for two years after losing her father and cat – to empathise with others. Two months ago, a woman, whose husband had lost his job and started drinking heavily, approached the CC for help.

Feeling helpless and hopeless, she considered suicide. Ms Vahsugi counselled her out of her suicidal thoughts, gave the woman her personal mobile number, and connected her with a Community Development Council to apply for financial support.


What more can be done

Pink, of the book Drive, had a bold proposition for organisations – that they may be better off without the traditional models of “management”, as it is just a euphemism for ways to control employees. This drains their motivation and affects their work performance.

He cited examples of successful companies releasing some control over employees. For instance, global technology company 3M gives employees the freedom to work on anything they want up to 15% of their work time. The Post-it note was invented as a result.

The idea of “letting go” may sound outrageous to the Public Service, where layers of checks are common and necessary. But Pink’s audacious suggestion provides some food for thought in how organisations can better engage employees by giving them more control over their jobs.

Responding to Pink’s suggestions, Chief Human Resource Officer at PSD, Ms Low Peck Kem, disagreed that management is the problem, saying that the idea of self directed teams and co- creating solutions can definitely work in public service.

She added: “Management’s job, then, is not to exercise control, but to fan the burning ambitions of wanting to do a good job, create the platforms for teams to exercise creativity to do their work, and then step aside and let their officers shine.”

At a 2010 lecture at the Civil Service College, Professor Francis Flynn identified autonomy as one of the top motivating factors in work performance. In his speech extract published in Ethos: Insights, the Paul E. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business defined autonomous employees as “being independent, being trusted to exercise discretion”.

Granting employees autonomy and control doesn’t mean management is obsolete. Instead, public service leaders should aim to inspire, said Chairman of the Economic Development Board Leo Yip in a 2012 interview with Challenge (May/June).

It is the leader’s job to make sure officers work knowing that they are connected to “something bigger”, and that they feel a sense of belonging to a work environment where they can discover “meaning and fulfilment”, said Mr Yip. Instead of the top management deciding the direction of the organisation alone, he believes in involving staff to co-create a vision together.

Having “very supportive” bosses enables Career Coach Jeremiah Wong from the Singapore Workforce Development Agency to manage the obstacles in his job. He helps match unemployed clients to potential employers, and links them to training courses and one-to-one coaching. Mr Wong has helped people from all walks of life, from clients who get verbally abusive to single mothers who struggle to find “no overtime” work.

For example, when he struggled with a recent project because of a lack of experience and knowledge (he’s coming to three years in this job), his supervisor stepped in to provide insights and prepare him for the potential challenges ahead.

“My boss would stay back late after work to guide me on effective project management… and point out areas which I had overlooked,” said Mr Wong. “She did so right up to the night before the project launch, and for that I am very grateful!”

From having positive relationships, finding meaning in their work, feeling a sense of accomplishment – no matter how small – to being engaged and positive at work, these fired up public officers fit the PERMA Model of happiness, which keeps them going when work gets tough.

In a time where many see happiness as a priority, as the “Happy” song suggests, it makes sense for those in management to further consider how they can cheer their employees on, and up, at work.

    Nov 26, 2014
    Chen Jingting
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