City Weekend

Is Hong Kong’s competitive work culture fuelling overtime norms?

Doctor warns that workers should know when and where to draw the line before they succumb to career burnout

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 9:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 9:47am

The revelation last October that a 31-year-old reporter from public broadcaster NHK had died from overwork sent shock waves through Japan.

Miwa Sado had logged 159 hours of overtime with only two days of rest in a month, leading to her death from heart failure back in 2013.

In Hong Kong, the Standard Working Hours Committee, established in 2013, has been in talks with employers and labour unions to reach a consensus on the amount of time workers should dedicate to their jobs.

Deep-set cultural norms, however, seem to impede progress on any agreement.

When colleagues become fierce competitors and working after office hours becomes something that is expected, it is time to slow down, according to a family doctor.

“We need to know there is an issue. It’s not something that you can overcome just by willpower. We can’t say just because this person has symptoms of burnout, then he or she is not suitable for the position.

Will Hong Kong’s problem with long working hours ever come to an end?

“It’s a recognised phenomenon influenced by the work environment and workload,” Dr Cheng Chi-man says, adding that the dangerous thing about overworking is that symptoms can slowly creep in if early signs of a burnout are ignored.

“When you are overworked, you are always tired, sleep deprived, have no appetite, and are prone to illness, to name a few symptoms.

“In the long run, job performance will be affected, especially for those with jobs that require higher concentration or acute decision-making, such as doctors, nurses, pilots and drivers. The impaired concentration and attention span will lead to a vicious cycle of poor performance.”

Why are Hongkongers working themselves to death?

Cheng says overworking can also take its toll on mental health. “Mentally, the person will usually feel a lack of job satisfaction, anxiety and sense of frustration towards the job, leading to feelings of being depressed.

“Excessive concern over one’s performance is also another sign of a career burnout.”

While the demands of our jobs can easily extend beyond the workplace, Cheng stresses the importance of setting boundaries.

“You can’t call it rest if you’re still reading emails or scanning reports on your mobile phone while you’re away from the work desk.”