Blowing Water

Why are Hongkongers working themselves to death?

Luisa Tam says it’s not just the Japanese who are putting in too much overtime. And when even the rich are taking on punishing hours, something must be wrong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 10:28pm

The recent news of a Japanese journalist who died from exhaustion after clocking up 159 hours of overtime in a month will resonate with many Hongkongers.

The city’s workers are no strangers to putting in overtime; according to recent statistics we do more of it than any other workforce in Asia. A 2015 survey by Regus, an international office space provider, found that 20 per cent of Hongkongers put in four to six hours of overtime every week and 19 per cent work an extra six to eight hours per week. That is more than our neighbours on the mainland, as well as those in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

But that’s nothing compared to the working hours of journalists in the city.

Many of us put in an extra four to six hours on an almost daily basis. The overtime culture is particularly bad at some of the city’s Chinese-language newspapers, where there’s a common saying: “Yau fan gung, mo fong gung”; “There’s only clocking in and no clocking out”.

In one of my previous jobs with another newspaper, I had to work a back-to-back shift from 10am to 2am, and could only leave after the paper had been sent to the printers. That lasted more than six months. Eventually, I became so ill I had to take more than a year off work.

We all know that overworked people are less efficient and less effective because long hours reduce productivity and diminish the quality of work. And it’s common knowledge that fatigue makes it hard for people to perform at a high cognitive level and increases the risk of making mistakes. Stress has also been repeatedly linked to heart disease, high blood pressure and other dangerous conditions.

We know it’s bad for us, so why are we still inflicting this on ourselves?

There are unavoidable circumstances, such as companies being short-staffed, or not filling positions, which causes better workers to take on more responsibilities.

But there are also many lower-skilled workers who are forced to work excessive overtime to boost their pay, because of a meagre salary. However, it’s a totally different story for some others such as those in the financial sector. They are already in high-paying jobs, but choose to sacrifice a normal life to get rich quick. In their case, overwork is a choice because they see it as a road to prosperity.

Are Hong Kong bus drivers dangerously overworked?

I often hear people talk about their work in terms of quantity, not quality, by comparing with each other the long hours they put in. Some wear their overworking as a badge of honour. They want others to know they have long working days because they have lots of responsibilities which, in their minds, signify their important role in their company.

For some people, working overtime means they are hard-working and hence shows their dedication and commitment to the company.

What’s bewildering is that, decades ago, the better-paid used to work fewer hours than their lower-paid counterparts. Today, even highly paid people are more likely to work the same long days.

For the poorly paid workers, it’s understandable because they have no choice but to toil long hours to make ends meet. But for those who voluntarily work overtime – in the name of work culture, ambition, wealth or habit – is it really worth destroying your health and well-being?

We all know the answer. It’s time to start reviving the idea of working smarter, not longer.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post