Working hours back in spotlight

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00am


Given the choice between more pay and promotions or more paid leave, many Hong Kong workers would opt for the latter. That is the conclusion to be drawn from the latest survey of people's attitudes towards their jobs. It will not be entirely surprising to people familiar with the findings of regular work-life balance surveys by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme that there is room for improvement in the health of the city's working environment. What makes this one different is that it sets our workers apart from those around the world. Consultant Towers Watson included 1,000 of them in an online survey of 20,000 employees. While most rated pay the most important factor when deciding if a job is attractive, Hongkongers put paid leave at the top of their concerns. The survey also found that only 47 per cent considered themselves to be in good health - compared with a global average of 61 - and that local respondents took more sick-leave days.

This can not be because we are work-shy or given to whining. Our city remains renowned for its hard-work, can-do business ethic. As a result, employees here deliver closer to 50 hours work a week than the 40 recommended by the International Labour Organisation and spend a large proportion of their time on work-related activities.

Total paid leave is not much less than elsewhere once numerous public holidays are included. Nonetheless, surveys have shown that a majority of workers blame chronic fatigue and extreme tiredness on work-related stress and imbalance. This leaves them with little quality time for family, friends and exercise to refresh their minds and spirit. A happy worker is more efficient and productive than one who is not.

Unfortunately, many bosses cling to the belief that productivity means squeezing the most working hours out of employees without considering the cost of diminishing returns once the limit is reached. There is little evidence of a can-do approach in adopting more creative arrangements such as flexible work hours, job-sharing and working from home. Some large corporations have followed the civil service in switching to a five-day week, but many firms have not bothered. As a result too many people still work hard, but not smarter.

Local respondents in the survey said a sense of caring for their well-being was the quality workers most wanted to see in their bosses. That should begin in the workplace. But the consultants said the survey showed Hongkongers cherish their free time and that health and ample rest are important to employee productivity. The recent introduction of a minimum wage can be the start of a process that should make our city a more productive and enjoyable place in which to live and work. When workers put more free time ahead of money it is time to address the promised next stage of standard working hours.