THE longest DAY

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2003, 12:00am

THE MOUNTAIN OF files on solicitor Andy Kung Fan-cheong's desk grows higher by the day. 'There is a lot more to do than before,' sighs the partner at Central law firm Pang, Kung & Co as he ploughs through another 60-hour week. 'If there is more business, you simply have to cope with it.'

It wasn't always like this. 'The recession means I have to work longer hours,' says Kung. 'Before, everyone had their work cut out, but now one person has to do the work of two people. Obviously, you can't just hire a new person for the extra work, so you have to deal with it yourself.'

The old adage that Hongkongers 'work hard, play hard' rings less true these days. For many, there simply isn't enough time to play. A report released this week by Swiss banking giant UBS suggests that we are steadily sacrificing our leisure time. In a study of 12 occupations ranging from bus drivers to school teaches in 70 cities worldwide, the average Hong Kong employee was found to work the longest, clocking on for a staggering 2,398 hours a year - or an average of 46 hours each week. Mumbai workers rank second, logging 2,347 hours, closely followed by Taipei's 2,327 hours.

The Hong Kong total represents an increase of 213 hours since the last UBS survey three years ago - when Kuala Lumpur reigned as the world's most workaholic city - and a rise of up to 387 hours since 1982. That's an extra seven hours a week we're doing.

While it's no secret that the Asian work ethic has eclipsed that found in the west for some time, the study reveals that Asian workers are now putting in an extra 20 per cent compared to their European counterparts. The hardest working staff in western Europe can be found in London and Switzerland (turning up for 1,787 and 1,872 hours a year respectively), but the French have the easiest life of all: turning up for a mere 1,561 hours a year. But since the French earn US$3.10 more an hour than we do they are better able to revel in their time off. For all the hard slog, Hong Kongers reap less reward. The city ranks 30th in the pay list with workers taking home an average of US$7 per hour - way behind Zurich's US$19.30 and less than half New York's US$15.20.

To add more pain to our lack of gain, the average annual leave entitlement in Hong Kong was found to have been cut to just eight days a year from 14 three years ago - the lowest in the world and well below the international average of 21. Compounding this misery is the report's claim that Hong Kong is the most expensive city in the world to live in, if rent is included in the equation (take rent away, however, and we still run a close second to Oslo.) The implications for Hong Kong's workforce are grave. The statistics point to a nation of burnt-out workers for whom time is a more precious resource than the money. So much for all those fantastic ideas about labour saving technology that were supposed to leave the post-millennium worker with plenty of free time. The increasing convenience of communication devices, combined with the time zones that separate Hong Kong from business in the west, has pushed us ever harder and faster. Conference calls and internet forums mean that local companies have no choice but to wait for international partners to wake up.

As an ex-advertising chief for an American company in Hong Kong recalls, it's not the other way round: 'The company didn't appreciate why we didn't want to work late while they do the minimum working day. You sometimes wondered if they realised the earth spins around. We always ended up doing the late hours, usually working until 9pm - sometimes they'd be calling at 4am. It was expected.'

The debilitating effects of long hours coupled with reduced disposable income on our general wellbeing may be pushing us to the brink of collapse. 'The situation is dire,' declares stress expert and psychological health clinician Jay McClellan. 'Working for long hours initially gives way to the small-scale effects such as lower back pain, muscle tension, neck pain and such. People take their stress and anxieties home and can't switch off.'

For those who embrace the challenge things can become far worse. 'There's a certain person we call a 'Type A' personality,' explains McClellan. 'These are highly stressed, very competitive individuals who are always on edge. You find them in high-pressure jobs - so naturally, Hong Kong is full of them. The amount of adrenalin these people produce during long, intense days where there's no time for proper relaxation, can be very dangerous over the long term,' she continues.

'I'm not able to get enough sleep, so my body is rather weak,' says PR executive Leender Chang Co-yi. 'I get a cold easily when the weather changes. But I don't take any supplements or vitamins.'

Chang's official working hours are from 8.45am to 5.45pm, Monday to Friday. However, she usually can't get off work until 10pm. At weekends, she goes into the office for six hours each day. She gets just six hours sleep a night. 'I need a morning coffee. But I think it is more of a psychological factor. I try to tell myself, 'hey, you've had your morning coffee, so feel awake and fresh now!''

Chang, 29, forces herself for a walk in the hills once every two weeks. 'Without exercising, I feel dull and slow,' she says.

McClellan says exercise is vital. Simple steps can help counter the negative effects of overwork, says McClellan. 'People don't realise that all they need to do is take five minutes a day to do some simple, stress-relieving breathing exercises. By not relaxing, excess adrenalin leads to a build-up of certain hormones that put them at a very high risk of developing anything from irritable bowel syndrome to heart disease, liver failure and cancer. We're looking at a very ugly picture here indeed.'

Why do we do it to ourselves? Or rather, why are we expected to? 'Because too many bosses are putting profits before the wellbeing of their staff,'' says Chris Chan, organising secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. He cites two interweaving trends that are defining the labour market. 'First, the unemployment level has been steadily increasing. With so many companies reducing their workforce, there are fewer people working [so they work] harder and longer.'

The situation is therefore ripe for exploitation by the employers: 'There are more so-called 'casual' workers now on temporary contracts with no fixed salary level,' he continues. 'Some workers have to work harder to maintain a basic salary, so some shift workers might work for as long as 14 hours per day just to provide the minimum for their families. The government should introduce limitations - maximum working hours and legislation for a minimum wage to stop this.'

For those who find themselves in a situation of constantly trying to catch up with themselves, issues have to be dealt with on a personal level. 'It's all about self-esteem, about realising that saying no isn't actually that hard to do,' asserts Lynda Aurora, former chartered accountant and now Asia's first professionally certified life coach.

'It's easy to start off the day thinking 'I wonder if I can leave at a certain time?' before finally bottling it when it comes to the crunch. You need to have assertiveness, that notion of 'I'm getting out of here now'. Time zones and decreased workforces are indeed issues that we need to deal with positively - just don't forget to look after yourself first. No one else is going to.'

Additional reporting by Sophie Taylor and Monique Chu