Ever groaned when your boss has organised a meeting for 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon while you surreptitiously texted your friends about what bar to meet at later? Standard Chartered Bank appreciates that its staff members already have a hefty workload and a higher than average number of working hours. So to provide a treat, it has introduced Happy Fridays. 'The whole idea brings a smile to people's lips,' said Yvonne Corpuz, head of human resources for consumer banking at Standard Chartered Bank. It's a weekly event to ensure that, where possible, staff members have left the building at 5pm to enjoy dinner, karaoke, the cinema or just get an early start on their weekend. Happy Friday was introduced by the bank to its Hong Kong staff in June to ensure that employees had the opportunity to spend more time with their families, and it was one of the programmes instituted by the bank for a healthy work-life balance. Announcements during the week remind staff members they can leave and that the meetings are over - where possible - by that time. 'Friday the 13th is always associated with something gloomy,' Ms Corpuz said. 'So in June we also suggested that people dress in something colourful and that the departments take photographs of their staff members.' Both ideas, she said, had energised the staff and that positive energy translated well in their attitude towards the firm and their work. In fact, one Happy Friday this month involves employees bringing their children to work at 4.30pm so that they can see where their parents work. Corporations, generally, in Hong Kong have a long way to go in terms of work-life balance, according to Shalini Mahtani, founder and chief executive of Community Business, a non-profit organisation which promotes corporate social responsibility in Hong Kong. 'Work-life balance is not something that Hong Kong has done well,' she said. 'While there have been improvements, too many people work long hours, and there is a cultural emphasis on not leaving before your boss does. 'A big change came two years ago when the government introduced the five-day working week. I think that really shook up the private sector. A lot of large companies, especially the multinationals, already had a five-day work week, but some of the medium-sized employers felt they needed to look at the issue now that the largest employer in Hong Kong had a [five-day work week]. 'I think the corporate sector does have a very long way to go but I think that I'm much more optimistic than I have been in the past,' Ms Mahtani said. Last year, Community Business carried out a survey on work-life balance which was followed by a case study involving 18 multinational and local firms, each showcasing a particular work-life programme covering flexible working hours; reducing the time people work; fitness and health; employees and support networks, among other issues. 'In our survey, more than 30 per cent of people are working late in the evenings, because they don't want to be seen to be leaving work before their bosses or their colleagues. So people are working to give face.' Richard Welford, deputy director of the corporate environmental governance programme at University of Hong Kong (HKU) agrees. 'Those with a pro-active work-life balance policy still tend to be the multinationals,' he said. 'Local firms still don't understand the benefits of work-life balance. There's still this misconception that if you make your staff work longer hours, they will be more productive. This is despite virtually every piece of research I've ever read saying the contrary. There's just this feeling that people ought to work hard for their jobs.' CSR Asia and HKU undertook a joint survey in March, the second of its kind, interviewing slightly more than 1,000 people from local and multinational firms. The findings showed that the average working week had dropped. It has fallen from 55.2 hours in 2005 to 49.6 hours. But 62.4 per cent of people regularly work unpaid overtime and 51.7 per cent of people work late into the evening. Out of the people who work late, 62.6 per cent do it to get their job done and be more productive. While 37.4 per cent do it out of a sense of obligation. 'The hidden costs are that there is a lot of evidence connecting a bad work-life balance with ill health,' Professor Welford said. 'This can be stress, insomnia, poor diet and lack of exercise. These are health problems that we will get now and the future.' Some of the firms interviewed by Community Business are working hard to look after their employees' health. One even has its own gym for jet-setting executives and others provide gym coupons for employees. Ms Mahtani praised Standard Chartered Bank's Project 1900 initiative which started in 2005. Its a programme to get employees working in branches, wherever possible, out of the workplace by 7pm, hence the 1900. 'Instead of being patted on the back for working late in the evening, it's actually 'what's wrong with you'?' Ms Mahtani said. If staff members are found to be consistently working after 7pm, then the bank looks at the time management aspects of the team and also if staff require extra help with the workload. Ms Mahtani and Professor Welford recommend flexible working hours and working from home. In such a technologically advanced city, Ms Mahtani predicts increasing numbers of employees will work from home, but it is happening slowly - despite the money companies can save on paying extraordinarily expensive rents for office space. 'There's a lack of trust,' Professor Welford said. 'This feeling is that if people are not at their desk, then they are not working.' 'There is a strong work ethic here. People do stay late,' Ms Corpuz said. 'It's stronger than either Sydney or Singapore, where I have worked previously. But people are becoming increasingly aware of what they want to do outside of work.' She said that increasingly what prospective employees said during interviews was an indication of how the new generation would handle work-life balance issues. 'Usually, during an interview, it is about what you can offer,' Ms Corpuz said. 'But now it's also, 'I want a company where I can learn and which gives me room to grow but also I have outside interests, so work-life balance is important to me, too'.' Community Business is organising a work-life-balance day on October17. Companies of all sizes can sign up, free of charge, at www.communitybusiness.org.hk .