The Long And Winding Working Hours

I have quit my job and left Indonesia a year ago, but still receive job offers from time to time, although no one dares to relocate me back to Jakarta as en expat (*wink). But when I was visiting my ex boss in his fancy office after having dinner with my ex-colleagues, seeing the whole department was still complete and on full force even after 9PM (and received a request if I could help them out since I’d be here for 2 months), I blurted that I would not want to go back to this working habit. And I mean it. I have been there and done that. And I have no intention of doing it all over again, because I have the chance to choose a better life.

Just like most people with so-called important jobs in Jakarta, my days started before six and finished around midnight. I was lucky I lived (still do, actually) in the city so I didn’t have to leave home before 5AM like others, but I still spent 45 minutes to 1 hour to reach my office. Normal days would be getting in the office at 8.30 and finished around 9PM, then it was either having late dinner with colleagues and friends, or attending social gatherings somewhere, or simply going to gym for a couple of hours. I used to work at weekends as well, and if the project was about to complete, I and everybody else would be awake 24 hours and stayed at the project until 3AM. When I was handling the projects outside Jakarta, my days would start even earlier and finish much later. When I moved to a different industry, long working hours remained (I once stopped over in Singapore after 13 hours flight and went straight to the conference room, jet-lagged and all), except that I could at least enjoyed some weekends off.

And just like any other Jakartans, I thought it was normal. It is normal. Some offices have overtime habits so much if we went home earlier we would be teased and end up feeling guilty.

But let’s see.

Many of us turned up late, then after signing in we sneaked out for quick breakfast and were only ready to work after 9 AM. Half of our days were spent for traveling between meeting places and we left at 11.30 for lunch and were back after 2PM. Some of us were online all day with instant messaging and quietly chatting with others rather than trying to finish our jobs quickly. Meetings (if I didn’t run it) usually started late, and the first hour was spent to wait for others to turn up. There were more than one occasion where our workers were just sitting around doing nothing because the material hadn’t arrived on site yet, or the toolkits were lost somewhere and must be delivered again. No wonder it was difficult to finish one simple task, and even if we tried to commit to ourselves, the job was usually linked to someone else who would set it aside and went for breakfast/lunch/meeting and didn’t do it until the last minute.

However, there are people who have no choice but working late, even though they don’t spend their time messing about with unimportant stuff, and try to do five to ten jobs at the same time. My friends are a perfect example. Dinar spends 20 hours a day in the office everyday. I used to be busier than Prila and Debora, but now these two ladies go home later and later each day. And remember my ex-boss and the entire department who were still working when I turned up at the office at 9PM? These people might not remember the last time they went home on time. But again, half of their overtime are due to other factors. With acute traffic jams and our own (and other) inefficiency, we don’t have much choice except spending time longer in the office to be able to finish our tasks.

Working long hours were not only normal in Indonesia, but also in any other Asian countries, although for totally different reasons, like fierce competition. I used to be harassed by my regional client in Singapore who seemed to never sleep at all. When I replied his email at 9PM, he would reply back at 1AM and expect me to be ready with an answer by first thing in the morning – by reminding me regarding his previous email at 7AM. I went for a conference in Shanghai and after we finished at 10PM people still gathered outside the conference room and continued the discussions (I was ready to drag myself to bed but how could I if everyone else was not?).

But then in Scotland, I realize that the pace is totally different. Normal time means we go home around 5PM. Overtime means staying at the office until 7PM. No traffic jam means people can reach their offices between 10 minutes to 30 minutes. Some choose to ride bikes or even walk. It was strange at the beginning to see Stuart at home in the afternoon, because normally we saw each other after 10PM in Jakarta (it took him three hours to reach home from his office!).

And nobody is expected to work overtime if it is not absolutely necessary.

Back in Jakarta since last week and noticing my friends’ long working hours, I cringe, remembering that I used to be like that. I am aware that being in the position where they are right now, climbing the career ladder, trying to finish the project on time, be the best and exceed the target, there is not much choice except doing it. I just wish they realize that this is not healthy in the long run. I hope they remember that there’s life outside their jobs.

It’s just job, after all. Not a matter of life and death. The company wouldn’t collapse if we go home on time. And the task will still be there, everyday, waiting for us to finish. We finish one today, a new one will come the next day. We are just employees, after all, and the office is still running with or without us. And despite what we think, our bosses know that we are not irreplaceable.

** Happy birthday, Dinar. This posting is for you. We have danced for you on your birthday. Now it’s time for you to enjoy your special day. Go home! **


  1. Andie Summerkiss says:

    It is all personal choice, isn’t it. They would think that they have no choice, they actually do.

    My job in Indonesia was like that too. Worse, I was on 24 hour – on call, 365 days a year. Every new year’s eve I would be in the shop till 3-4am in the morning. Sometime we would camped out in the shop for weeks before peak season and holidays.

    We didn’t get filthy rich. We weren’t insanely happy and satisfied. So .. what’s the point.

  2. People work long hours for many reasons, but it has become an alarming situation, which leads to stress, family strain, and affect our health too. I understand that in UK they have opt-out clause, so overtime is voluntarily. Wish we have similar clause too.

    I would love to work in pace like you do in Scotland, how nice.

  3. Rishardana says:

    Pssst Mbak Anita, please don’t tell my boss, but one of the reason the guys in my office stick to stay long hours in the office is to play various of games.

    And also there’s the fact that it’s murder like traffic outside from 5 to 7 pm.

  4. Anonymous says:

    i love financially freedom, i dont like working at the office over the office hour.

  5. hhmmm gt ya..syerem. as i worked with development and emergency in Indo, working till late means i did more for the society, at least i like to think so. i worked till late but i loved my job and i did that wholeheartedly.

    but i can’t imagine working for company, money money and that..syerem.

    In Norway, i work like play 😀

  6. Wahh mbak Nit bener bgt..

    Rata-rata temenku yang jadi arsitek juga gitu, kerja udah kaya kuli. Kalo malem-malem aku OL di YM, ehh tyt dia msh lembur di kantor dgn status “busy”, kadang-kadang ampe jam 1 pagi statusnya juga masih “busy”. Weekend? Jangan ditanya, kadang-kadang Minggu pun tetep ngedekam di kantor nyelesein deadline proyek yg ga ada ujungnya.

    Huahh aku tak tahan hidup seperti ituu, makanya aku banting setir ke desain grafis ato freelance2 gitu. Minimal klo freelance, aku masih bisa ngatur kpn aku mo sibuk/santai.

    Yahh tp org emg beda2 sih ya, masalah pilihan hidup. Mau milih kualitas hidup yg ky gmn. Asal jgn jd “zombie hidup” aja, jd kaya robot.

    You only live once! Hehehe.

  7. btw, is this in corelation to the ‘fact’ that many of the expats are blogging? because they have more time then the indo workers?

    hehehe..and the indo workers who blog regularly, many of them are people who work with IT or self employed.

    but not workers like u mentioned in the story..hihi.

  8. Anonymous says:


    In UK when you get home from work you need to cook food, clean house, wash, iron, manage garden, do shopping ….

    I’m sure you did none of this when you worked in Indonesia as you had your multitude of servants who earned a pittance working from dawn to dusk. It’s so sad that they don’t get a mention in your lifestyle comparisons.

    As you’ve lived in the West I hope you now have more consideration and compassion for them than you did in the past. How about treating them to lunch for a change.


  9. After a year of blogwalking looking for inside information on the Indonesian way of life, reading thousands of posts, this great one ranks among the top three. Well, maybe even it is number one, when imply the (previous) comments.

    To me it’s a better read than most anthropological, sociological or social-psychological studies. It really gives some insight in a few slices of Indo reality.

  10. Finally Woken says:

    @Andie: I feel you. After a while, we realize that our work isn’t our lives.

    @Toni: well, I don’t think we have much choice. Everyone else works late, and even if we want to go home on time, the pending tasks are there, we still must wait our counterparts/colleagues to deliver the job before we could do ours.

    @Rish: naughty, naughty!

    @Mulia: interesting idea about expat bloggers. Maybe because they could use their time much more efficient than us, maybe because they refuse to work overtime unless it’s necessary because they value themselves and their time?

    @Ajeng: people work for consultancy or service industry are usually like that. Clients have zero tolerance and demand things quickly. The stupid thing is, most of us (well, our boss) can’t say NO to them and in result must work twice/three times longer to achieve the unrealistic deadlines.

    @Anonymous (M): you don’t know me, and rather than asking, you throw your judgment and prejudice. You’re talking to someone who’s different from most Indonesians, and if you follow my blog, you’d know that I’m not like what you picture in your sod head.

    Are you trying to imply that I don’t have a right to complain because I have had maids working 24/7? Is that it?

    Let me tell you one thing. When I was in Indonesia, I DID NOT have maids/cooks/gardeners/driver. I lived by myself and I was (am) perfectly capable of taking care of myself without helpers. I left home when I was 18, and even that, in the “kost” I didn’t let the communal maids clean my room because 1)I didn’t trust them and 2)I cleaned much better & faster than them.

    And who was talking about “lifestyle”? I was talking about people being abused at work without having much choice. It’s not what they want, it’s more because they have to.

    Regarding treating my maids, well since I don’t have one, I’m going to tell you stories about my parents’. If we go out for a meal, my parents’ driver sits down at the same table as us. And of course we pay for whatever he orders. Do you do that your driver or you just throw 20,000 and tell him to get meals off the street? The maid gets day-off, one gets to fly to her ‘kampung’ twice a year, plane and all. When a family member got married, my maid got her wedding uniform, hair and make-up done just like me and the rest of the family. So don’t you come here and preach what I should do and pretend you’re holier than me whilst hiding behind ‘anonymous mask’. When you point your finger to me, the other fingers point back at you. I hope you stop judging people before you know them. How about practicing your preach for a change. Or treat me lunch because you’re being rude.

    @Colson: yeah, we have lots of homework to do. The company I used to work for applied its international standard of overtime, for a while, before realizing that some of the staffs ‘abused’ the policy to get more money. Now the staffs only got free dinner… :)

  11. My boss is a workaholic and she often expected her staffs to work far harder than she wants or needs to! She even wishes to die while she is doing her works in the office, silly woman! :)

  12. @Elyani:

    That’s the sickest thing I’d heard about work, so far!! lol


    If only this posting was made a year ago when I was feeling like a no-life workaholic whose life only consisted of work, work and more work. I got the feeling that the people in the company I worked for actually lived to work, not worked to live, and I had the sudden fear of becoming like them.

    I got so caught up in the habit of working late that I could no longer saw the ridiculousness of it – I could work up to 11 pm and the workload would still be adding up again the very next day. It would never end, and my manager, knowing that I worked late, even piled up even more papers for me to do, and that placed me in an evil and deadly cycle I couldn’t break, unless I stopped working overtime.

    I did finally get the habit of going home at exactly 4 pm, and I found out that it was the very same day that my senior and manager took a sudden dislike of me and started giving me a hard time – as if what I’d done was an unforgivable crime or something.

    You’re right Anita, it’s just work. But people think it’s more than that. It’s their lives, it’s the place that they earn money, power, position and respect. And that’s what’s so sad about it, because when they do, they’ve actually missed all the fun they could’ve had with their families at home, and they’ve robbed themselves of their personal down time of halting everything and just breathe and enjoy life for a moment.

    Life is meant to be fun – why are people making it difficult to live up to?

  13. @M:

    “As you’ve lived in the West I hope you now have more consideration and compassion for them than you did in the past. How about treating them to lunch for a change.”

    You made Anita seemed like she was anything but a compassionate and considerate person and you don’t even know her, what exactly are you trying to imply?

  14. rimafauzi says:

    Hey nit, great article you have here.
    It made me reminisce about all the time I spent on the road coming home from the office and going to the office in the morning.

    I feel so lukcy that like you, I now have much more time for myself and quality time for my husband.

    I loved my jobs in Indonesia, but now, although I dont necessarily live my job, I love my life.

    Oh and like you (your family) I treat my maids with respect and like family.

    In case that ‘M’ character is wondering, there are many people like you and me, who loved our domestic helpers and treat them like family. I used to take mine out to restaurants and cinemas, just because I wanted them to relax and unwind. God only knows they have a tough job as well.

    cheers girl, and have fun in Jakarta!

  15. Rob Baiton says:

    See that is the thing for me…You are still getting job offers but not the money or conditions that might attract you back.

    To me this is the stupidity of it all. It is not really an expat thing for me, but rather paying for the value that you are seeking to acquire.

    The fact that the offers are there indicates that the work you do has and is valued. Yet, those offering the work are too cheap to step up to the plate and play (in this case pay).

    This is the reason that I am contemplating leaving these fine shores and heading to a climate where I am paid what I am worth for what I contribute. Or with a bit of luck I might find an Indonesian firm willing to ante up but either way if I work hard then I expect to be rewared well.

    Sorry for the short little rant!

    I agree with Andie you are better off doing what makes you happy rather than pursuing those things that might pay the bills but leave us underwhelmed on all other fronts.

  16. Wind Mill says:

    Your article makes me reminisce about the similar work life that I endured throughout most of my career years.

    From my experience I have to say that it does not pay to live a work life like that. It is counter productive.

    My last employ was in Thailand. My job responsibilities more than trebled in less than 10 months. Pay was exceedingly good and the executive perks along with it. Even that did not compensate for my health and mental well being.

    I retired from the madding employ world and set up my computer business. No amount of money or job title would seduce me back to that senseless work life ever.

    I hope that you will soon find a solution to this unhealthy life style.

  17. trancepass says:

    Being on time or not, it is obviously up to you.

    nice post.

  18. I used to think that my long working hours is normal, yes normal for my work field, everybody do that, friends in other companies do that as well.

    But when I met Sam and his colleagues I started to wonder actually I can have a job with normal hours meaning 8 to 5, the thing is it’s not easy to find one here in Indonesia/ Jakarta. And now I started to be at the office early 9am and go home on time at 6pm, but with Jakarta traffic jam I will be at home at 7pm *sigh*

    I promise to my self that I won’t let the job takes control of my life, there is other life than work.

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