First step to break workaholic culture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 June, 2006, 12:00am

In the first of a three-part series, we look at the impact on society of moving to a five-day week

The move to introduce a five-day work week in the civil service could be the first step in changing Hong Kong's workaholic culture, says an academic.

City University researcher Luk Chi-yung says Hong Kong's obsession with economic buzz phrases like 'do more with less', 'surpassing previous records', 'productivity enhancement' and 'value-adding' has led to a culture of overwork and no play.

Mr Luk, a research associate in organisational studies at the South East Asian Research Centre, says an outdated approach to managing people puts an ever-increasing work burden on employees.

'Hong Kong used to have an industrial-based economy, so employees worked hard during the day, but they could forget about it when they clocked out at the end of their shift,' says Mr Luk.

'In a knowledge-based economy, the idea of working overtime needs a fresh approach. Apart from the volume of work, the difficulty of employees' tasks often determine the hours worked. Difficult tasks are often taken home, leading to invisible and informal overtime.'

Mr Luk says the government's plan to introduce a five-day work week in the civil service is an important first step to addressing the workaholic culture that exists in Hong Kong.

The plan, which starts on Saturday, will initially relieve 59,000 civil servants of their Saturday morning duties. A proportion of the private sector is expected to follow suit.

But Mr Luk says most of the discussion has focused on work and non-work as separate realms, assuming employees can be discouraged from working while off duty. He argues this is not possible in a knowledge-based economy.

'More employees put work over personal interests and commitments, which is the crux of the work-life imbalance in Hong Kong,' he explains.

Mr Luk did research in 2003 to gauge how employees in the financial sector defined their quality of life during the economic slump.

He found them critical of the 'insatiable corporate demand for profit and productivity' leading to a shortage of manpower and the pressure to work overtime without pay to avoid looking lazy.

The result, according to the employees, was work stress spilling into their personal lives. Parents complained of having little energy to tend to their children and couples' relationships were under pressure because of the stress.

They said the more overtime they were required to perform, the more they found the work boring, eventually leading to burnout.

Mr Luk's study found resonance in a 2005 Chinese University survey where three-quarters of 500 respondents felt obliged to work overtime, though almost all wanted to spend more time at home.

'While apparently many of them do not object to overtime, in their heart they wish to work fewer hours,' says Chinese University academic Winton Au Wing-tung.

Professor Au says managers need to revise their definition of hard work.

'There needs to be a better performance grading system. At present, bosses assume that the more time people spend in the office the more work they do, so people stay longer.

'There needs to be a better system, one that evaluates output and productivity over the perceived effort employees put in,' says Professor Au.

Mr Luk believes a balance can be achieved only by tackling the root cause of the problem - what he terms the 'colonisation' of leisure time by work.

'To maintain a true work-life balance, it is important to distinguish a clear mental boundary between the two spheres. Work-life is in balance only when people can enjoy life after office hours.

'To improve productivity, employers should focus more on non-human resources, rather than making employees do more work - such as by updating computers.'

Some of the services to be cut on Saturdays. They will have longer operating hours during the week

Department of Health

Family clinics for civil servants

Central Health Education Unit

Radiation Health Unit

Child Assessment

Student and Elderly Health Services

Housing Department

Shroff services for rental payment

Anti-illegal hawking services

Warden services for senior citizens

Site supervisory activities


Court sittings (with certain exceptions)

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department

Shroff services of Hawker and Market Offices and Licence Issuing Offices

Counter for application and collection of import licences

Communication Resource Unit

Restaurant Licensing Resource Centre

Social Welfare Department

Traffic Accident Victims Assistance Section

Criminal and Law Enforcement Injuries Compensation Section

Social Security Appeal Board

Senior Citizen Card Office

Transport Department

Licensing Offices

Driving Test Appointment Office

Vehicle Examination Centres

Home Affairs Department

Central Telephone Inquiry Centre

Public Inquiry Service Counters

Resource centres under the Home Affairs Bureau

For further details, visit the webpage or call the 24-hour 1823 Citizen's Easy Link hotline