All work and no play is damaging to health

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am

Next to ants, who spend their entire lives toiling for their colonies by carrying food up to 50 times their body weight, Hongkongers are probably the most hard-working creatures, logging long hours under mounting stress. The situation has got even worse since the global financial crisis hit the local economy.

According to Professor Stephen Frost, executive director of CSR Asia, a corporate social responsibility consultancy, working hours for Hong Kong employees have noticeably increased in sectors such as manufacturing, training, small businesses, and industries most troubled by the financial crisis, such as banking and finance.

He admitted that Hong Kong employees in general were working under increasing stress with extra workloads as a result of company downsizing.

'Employees across Asia in general are more willing to work longer hours without compensation. In the current economic climate, employees who have managed to keep their jobs as survivors after their companies' retrenchment exercises are forced to take on additional responsibilities and work longer hours without compensation,' Frost said.

This is ominous considering that job satisfaction levels among Hong Kong employees rank among the lowest in the world, whether in good times or bad, according to Frost.

Supporting this was a survey conducted in June by the Continuing Professional Development Alliance (CPDA) which tracks Hong Kong professionals' work attitudes and wellness status under the present economic environment. It found that Hongkongers in professions, such as legal and human resources, and purchasing and supply tended to work longer official hours than in other industries and professions. People working in banking and education were also more prone to a long-hour culture.

Time and again, many local and international researchers have used statistical evidence to demonstrate that working long hours not only results in decreased job satisfaction, low morale and reduced productivity, but it also leads to health problems related to stress. About 75 per cent of the 184 CPDA survey respondents said that they were not able to find enough leisure time to do their favourite activities or spend time with their family and friends.

According to Frost's observations, companies, especially in small and medium-sized businesses, seem to be putting more emphasis on ways to boost productivity rather than ensuring a good work-life balance for their staff.

He emphasised that it was important for companies to maintain open communication with staff and engage them in the decision making process.

Dr Tsang Fan-kwong, a specialist in psychiatry, said a hectic city life and a competitive work environment were major sources of stress for many urbanites who were working extended long hours.

'People displaying behaviour such as walking in quick steps and easily getting agitated for arguments is a common indicator of stress,' he said. He added that stress could give rise to a flurry of health issues including insomnia, obesity and decreased immunity, making people more susceptible to illnesses and diseases such as influenza, skin allergy, indigestion, ulcer and, worryingly, cancer in the most extreme cases, all of which carry a real cost for a company's bottom line.

'Stress can seriously disturb people's regular life patterns, lead to fatigue and affect family relationships.'

Tsang said that a good work-life balance was important to help maintain personal health and sustain healthy relationships, and it should not suffer under any circumstances.

'It is important to draw yourself a line to decide when to call it a day, stick to it and go home. Make it a practice not to take work home and continue working.'

Tsang advised employees to make an effort to maintain work-life balance and urged employers to help their staff achieve this.

'According to many research studies, longer working hours lead to fatigue and decrease staff productivity and effectiveness, rather than increase productivity, and it gives rise to staff making more errors at work.'

In this sense, the ends do not justify the means. 'Make the most of your spare time to relax and rest. Set aside some time during the week to exercise, socialise with friends or pursue your personal interests to help reduce stress and resume a more regular life pattern as the ultimate goal.'

Stress position

Working long hours under rising pressure is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon among Hong Kong professionals

Incessant overtime reduces staff productivity and can give rise to severe health problems which carry a cost for companies

Hong Kong employees are among the world's lowest in terms of job satisfaction levels

Work-life balance is important for maintaining personal health and improving relationships'