A better future in the balance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2006, 12:00am

Civil servants have a shorter week, but the private sector has yet to catch on

THE GOVERNMENT HAS taken a big step towards creating a better work-life balance for civil servants with the introduction of a five-day working week.

The move has been hailed by corporate social responsibility advocates, but the private sector has yet to indicate whether it will follow suit.

'It is still early days and we have not yet seen a direct impact on recruitment practices due to this change,' said Paul Angwin, corporate social responsibility manager at recruitment firm Manpower Hong Kong.

'It is generally accepted that the Hong Kong custom is to work long hours and a 51/2-day working week.

'Although this may be instrumental in raising Hong Kong's competitiveness in the region, there is concern that there are negative effects on the health and well-being of the workforce.'

In a competitive job market, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to skilled employees. Employers who do not recognise the growing desire of employees for flexible working hours, the ability to perform their duties away from the office or having access to on-site childcare will find it increasingly difficult to retain quality staff.

'More people are resigning from their jobs to pursue a better work-life balance. Due to the talent shortage, companies will be forced to focus more on staff retention strategies, particularly those that create a better work-life balance,' Mr Angwin said.

'This includes starting and finishing times that can be adjusted for staff who have commitments to take children or elderly parents to school or care facilities.'

Employers who ignore the call for a better work-life balance risk damaging staff morale and hurting the company's bottom line by having to hire and train new staff to replace those who have left.

'Our studies have found that staff turnover can cost an organisation about six to 12 months of salary for each person who leaves the organisation,' Mr Angwin said.

'Addressing employee work-life balance can reduce staff turnover and save an organisation employment costs. If turnover is 20 per cent in an organisation of 100 people, reducing this by 5 per cent would save it 30 to 60 months of staff salary. If an employee was paid $20,000 per month, it could save an organisation $600,000 to $1.2 million a year if it implemented work-life balance measures.'

Based on research jointly conducted by Manpower Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong and Community Business in 2004, the average working week in Hong Kong is 55 hours. Three-quarters of the 1,000 respondents to the survey suffered from stress and a lack of exercise. More than a quarter admitted to taking sick leave to recover from working long hours and 80 per cent said they had to work overtime without being paid extra for it.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that 40 per cent of the people who said they performed unpaid overtime because of additional work did not actually do so. They were afraid of leaving before the boss or being seen as the first to leave the office. As a result, they worked slowly, dragging out the hours allotted to finishing it.

Work-life balance can mean different things to different people. It can also mean different things to the same people at different stages of their career.

Community Business chief executive Shalini Mahtani said: 'Companies that want the best people need to understand that each individual has his or her definition of what work-life balance means, and this can change with time.

'People in their 20s might be willing to work 15 hours a day to save money and get ahead. When they reach their 30s this can change. They might want to pursue an MBA, have a child, take up a hobby or do charity work. They might no longer be willing to work more than eight hours a day. If companies want to keep these people they will need to accommodate them.'

A researcher at City University said that despite the government's implementation of a five-day work week, it seemed to be sending out mixed messages.

It was encouraging employees to spend more time with their families and get more physical exercise, but it was also encouraging lifelong learning to meet the changing and expanding needs of the knowledge economy.

Luk Chi-yung, a research associate at City University's Southeast Asian Research Centre, said: 'Reducing hours alone is not enough to ensure a work-life balance in Hong Kong. In recent years, the knowledge economy has been requiring employees to devote more of their time to lifelong learning. If employees have to attend classes in the evening or on weekends, this will increase the stress that they are already facing on the job.'