Design Ambassador Agnes Kwek’s Tips To Prevent Burning Out At Work

Singapore’s first Design Ambassador Agnes Kwek shares how she has spent 18 years in the Public Service mostly without working after hours or over the weekends.
Singapore’s first Design Ambassador Agnes Kwek


Singapore Design Ambassador to Europe and North America (2018–present)
Executive Director, DesignSingapore Council (2016–2018)
Director, Corporate Transformation, Land Transport Authority (2014–2016)

Dear Young Officer,

A constant and worrying theme I’ve been hearing for years now is how burnt out public officers feel. The culprit is having to catch up on work or emails at night or over the weekends, as most of the working day is spent in meetings.

I spent 18 years of my career in the Public Service mostly not working at night nor over the weekend. Of course there are exceptions during crunch time, but that’s what they are: exceptions. How do I do it? It comes down to mainly three things: teamwork, priorities and accepting trade-offs.

To be clear, these tips apply only after you have done everything to be disciplined at work, i.e. no lengthy coffee breaks, surfing the Internet, chatting with colleagues during work hours. If time management is an issue, then read up on those strategies. This letter is not about that.

#1: Know that you are not indispensable

Singapore public officers have a fearsome work ethic. But a laudable sense of duty often comes at a price – the unwillingness to cede control, especially for the middle managers. Symptoms of this include vetting all emails, going through multiple drafts of a simple submission, or insisting on being present at all meetings. You are not letting your people learn and grow.

A good leader sets up his team to run successfully one day without him.

Whether you have a team of one or one hundred, please hear this: you are doing your people a disservice by trying to do everything yourself. You are not building their capabilities and confidence. A good leader sets up his team to run successfully one day without him. This calls for mentorship, face-to-face chats, role-modelling, instead of answering emails late at night.

#2: Seek alignment on your work priorities

Don’t assume your boss has a 100% view on what is on your plate. They are juggling other people’s work, too. Many times when an officer tells me that they have been given too much work, I ask whether they have spoken to their manager to clarify what is most important. My experience when I engage bosses on priority-setting is that they appreciate it when you flag these issues out early.

Here’s how to do it correctly:

  • Do not start with the intent to complain, but with the intent to solve a problem.
  • Offer your view on the key priorities, the order in which they need to be tackled, and set a timeline.
  • Save this battle for the truly important moments! This cannot happen all the time. It is a fine balance.
For me, I know that the choice between my health, happiness and family life or performance ranking is not even close.

Once you have settled on your priorities, be fully present. In meetings, for example, it dismays me that the typical scene now is a room full of people, with many typing away on their own devices, and only a few engaged in conversation. If you don’t need to be at the meeting, don’t be there. If you do, then be fully engaged and contribute.

When I was a young officer, there was no Wi-Fi in meeting rooms and no WhatsApp. We listened to how Permanent Secretaries weighed issues, debated with them, and we all left richer by those conversations.

#3: Accept your trade-offs

Let’s say you do all the above and achieve better work-life balance. Come performance ranking time, you may fear not faring as well as your colleague who has been working nights and weekends. And perhaps that is true.

I have seen staff suggestions such as “ban emails after work”. But catering to diverse career aspirations requires the presence of choice. The fact is that there are officers who want to push themselves to see how far they can go, and we need to respect that choice too.

So the question is: How clear are you about your life priorities? The best that we can do as human beings every day is to make peace with our choices. For me, I know that the choice between my health, happiness and family life or performance ranking is not even close. And I’m happy with that.

Agnes is Singapore’s Design Ambassador to Europe and North America, based in Paris. Her role is to raise awareness of Singapore as an innovation-driven economy and loveable city by design.

    Jan 23, 2019
    Agnes Kwek
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