Asia’s employees face salary and work-life balance difficulties, and must upskill to thrive


The last 12 months saw Asia’s working professionals face substantial challenges, as the global pandemic sparked unparalleled adversity and uncertainty. As a consequence, employees are reappraising goals, demands and how they operate in their workplace, according to the 2021 Asia Salary Guide report by leading recruitment experts Hays. 2021 will be a year in which employees will need to come to terms with these dramatic changes in order to thrive and progress.
This year marks the 14th edition of the annual Hays Asia Salary Guide, which remains a definitive snapshot of salaries for positions across industries in Asia. The salary and hiring insights, including a thorough market overview of business outlooks, salary policies and recruitment trends, are based on survey responses from working professionals and companies from the five Hays operating markets in Asia: China, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Salaries to stagnate
As employers across the region implemented cost-cutting solutions to counter pandemic-related revenue shortfalls, finance become prominent in the minds of employees. Consequently, jobseekers selected ‘salaries’ as the most preferred reason for choosing a new employer (58 per cent), with candidates in China (69 per cent) and Hong Kong (64 per cent) most concerned about income. This should not come as a surprise, as jobseekers have responded in this way consistently since 2017.
However, more illustrative is the fact that 49 per cent of professionals staying with their current employers do so for salary purposes also, a sharp increase from 40 per cent in 2020, meaning that for the first time since in five years ‘work-life balance’ was not the most preferred option. Employees in Malaysia were the most preoccupied with salaries (57 per cent), followed by those in Hong Kong (52 per cent).
Despite this focus on income, employees are not confident that they will see remuneration packages augmented in 2021, with 28 per cent predicting that their salaries will remain the same – double that of the previous year – with a further four per cent foreseeing pay cuts. Employees in China (39 per cent) were the most confident of receiving increases of more than ten per cent, followed by Malaysia (17 per cent), though six per cent of professionals in Malaysia and Japan predict decreases.
Concerns over diminishing remittance are understandable as 12 per cent of Asia’s employees received pay cuts or demotions in 2020, a figure rising to 13 per cent in Malaysia, 70 per cent of whom were compensated by reduced working hours. Though it may be of scant consolation, they were better off than their colleagues in Singapore, where 11 per cent of saw cutbacks, 65 per cent of whom receiving no compensation at all.
Working-from-home imposing on home life
Although ‘work-life’ balance was the second most-preferred option for professionals looking to stay with their employer, a higher percentage of responders selected it in 2021 (48 per cent) than the year before (43 per cent), with those in Japan, citing work-life balance as their primary concern (53 per cent).
2021 sees Asia’s professionals feeling less positive about the balance between work and life, as 46 per cent said that their work-life balance was either good or very good, down from 50 per cent in 2020. Though employees in China and Singapore were the most positive about their work life balance (50 and 47 per cent respectively), in Japan 14 per cent said that their balance was poor, with a further five per cent saying that it was very poor.
This disclosure comes at a time when a growing number of professionals are spending more time working from home, with 57 per cent of organisations offering remote working in 2021 – a leap from 31 per cent the year before – a figure that climbs to 71 per cent in Singapore. This seemingly contradictory evidence highlights the fact that demarcation lines between work and home life have become blurred, and many employees find it difficult to differentiate between the two. With that said, home or mobile working remains the most preferred option for employees should they pursue a new role – up to 63 per cent from 57 per cent in 2020 – followed by flexitime (57 per cent) and compressed hours (28 per cent).
New skills needed in changing workplace landscape
With the world changing so dramatically over the last year and the uncertainty of 2021, employees and candidates alike should be looking to improve their skill levels to reflect ‘new normal’ working operations. Digitalisation, video conferencing, cloud and technological transformations are now commonplace in the workplace, and employees must update skillsets in order to accommodate this.
However, working professionals are spending less time enhancing skills, with 36 per cent spending just one to two hours a week outside of their job upskilling and 21 per cent doing no improvement at all, up from 35 per cent and 19 per cent in 2020. Employees in Hong Kong are most likely to no additional upskilling (28 per cent, rising from 23 per cent the year before), while three percent of professionals in China and Malaysia are the most studious, spending more than 24 hours improving their skillsets each week.
“As companies tighten their belts throughout Asia, it is quite natural that their employees are concerned about, and focus upon, their salaries,” says Kirsty Hulston, Regional Director at Hays Singapore. “However, their predictions of restricted budgets in 2021 are sound, and as such employees looking to cement or improve salaries should concentrate on developing their skillsets to make themselves more attractive to potential employers.
“In addition, rather than seeking augmented salaries, they might turn their attention to other demands, such as improved career progression or a better work-life balance. For the latter, employees working from home can take this into their own hands by solidifying that boundary between work and leisure time. Using a separate computer for work and free time, having a dedicated ‘workspace’ in the home and finding ways to disconnect when the working day is done – whether through exercise, taking a brief walk or just selecting a time when to ‘go home’ and no longer answer emails – can all help to ameliorate the work-from-home experience.
“2021 poses numerous challenges for employees, but by tempering salary expectations, augmenting skillsets and focusing on self-care, they may find that it is a productive one, one that builds foundations for the better days ahead.”
Download your copy of the 2021 Hays Asia Salary Guide by clicking here.
About Hays

Hays plc (the "Group") is a leading global professional recruiting group. The Group is the expert at recruiting qualified, professional and skilled people worldwide, being the market leader in the UK and Australia and one of the market leaders in Continental Europe, Latin America and Asia. The Group operates across the private and public sectors, dealing in permanent positions, contract roles and temporary assignments. As at 30 June 2020 the Group employed c.10,400 staff operating from 266 offices in 33 countries across 20 specialisms. For the year ended 30 June 2020:
– the Group reported net fees of £996.2 million and operating profit (pre-exceptional items) of £135.0 million;
– the Group placed around 66,000 candidates into permanent jobs and around 235,000 people into temporary roles;
– 17% of Group net fees were generated in Australia & New Zealand, 26% in Germany, 23% in United Kingdom & Ireland and 34% in Rest of World (RoW);
– the temporary placement business represented 59% of net fees and the permanent placement business represented 41% of net fees;
– IT is the Group’s largest specialism, with 25% of net fees, while Accountancy & Finance (15%) and Construction & Property (12%), are the next largest
– Hays operates in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, the UK and the USA