THE countdown to the weekend starts early for some public servants.

So-called Blue Sky Days have been introduced at 35 government bodies since 2006 as a way to counter a culture of overworking.

Staff are encouraged to go home on time - while the sky is still blue - and spend time with their families or friends. Public bodies that have adopted this practice include ministries, polytechnics and the Istana. Their knock-off times on Blue Sky Days, which are often Fridays, range from 5pm to 6pm.

At the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), Blue Sky Friday means staff do not just leave on time, but earlier than in the rest of the week. They go home at 5.30pm instead of the usual 6pm.

Although the practice is not new, the topic resurfaced last Monday when Workers' Party MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap asked which ministries and statutory boards had Blue Sky Days and how frequently.

In a written reply, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that 35 public agencies had them, most on a weekly basis.

The Public Service Division (PSD) itself led the way in 2006.

"Officers were frequently working long hours and not spending time with their families and friends or pursuing other interests," said its senior director of human capital, Mr Ho Chee Pong.

Blue Sky Friday was introduced to counter that. Staff are told about the practice when they join, and reminded regularly via e-mail or posters. At some agencies, members of senior management walk around the office to remind staff that the day is ending.

Others go further. At the Housing Board, supervisors are urged not to hold meetings late on Friday afternoons.

There are more than 130,000 officers in 15 ministries and about 50 statutory boards. But not all can let staff go home on time.

In his reply, DPM Teo noted that operational and enforcement agencies, such as the police, are "less able to practise Blue Sky Days due to operational needs and exigencies of service".

Yet given the public service's reputation for a culture of overworking, do staff who can leave on time really do so?

The PSD's Mr Ho said: "Having a policy statement like Blue Sky Friday gives officers 'permission' to choose to leave the office on time without them feeling a sense of guilt."

Agencies with Blue Sky Days noted that leaving on time is not compulsory. BCA, which introduced Blue Sky Friday last year, said staff welcomed the move without hesitation - and many leave on time on Fridays.

People's Association assistant director of family life Chua Jing Jing spends her early Fridays having dinner with her parents or meeting friends for a movie. "It feels good to see colleagues leaving home to spend quality time with their growing children and families," added the 31-year-old.

One such colleague is Madam Grace Lim, 42, an executive assistant in the field secretariat and mother of a 10-year-old girl.

"I really enjoy the Blue Sky Fridays," she said. "It allows me to go home on time to spend more time with my family and is a great way to start the weekend."