No standard working hours in Hong Kong? This is an opportunity

Sue Brattle | |

When it comes to standard working hours, Hong Kong knows little equal. A local government census in 2016 showed that around one in 10 workers put in 60-plus hours a week. Nearly one percent does 75 hours and above. The average working week is 50.1 hours, 38 per cent above the global average.

Hong Kong doesn’t do well in the holiday stakes, either; not only do many companies work Saturdays, but there are 17 public holidays a year compared with an average of 23 around the world. In other words, the Hong Kong working hours stat leads the pack: it has the longest working week in the world.

If you’ve been tasked with building a new Hong Kong-based team, here are a few things you should know to help you better understand the drivers behind the unusual work conditions beyond the lack of legislation on standard working hours in Hong Kong.

First, Hong Kong is a tiny area. Seven million people live in a dot on the map that is made up of 300 islands. Most of them live and work in tower blocks on the main island, called Hong Kong Island. And it’s on the southern tip of China, so it only takes a quick hop over the border into the mainland. Its geographic location is convenient for many in the Asian and Southeast Asian economies.

Pick a number, any number

How is all this connected with Hong Kong’s l-o-o-n-g working week? Well, Hong Kong has been punching above its weight for years, as an Asian hub for financial and banking services since the British grabbed it in the 1840s.

Fast forward to now and these islands – no longer British following the handover to China back in 1997 – have learned that one thing above all others keeps their wheels turning and their clients coming back; flexibility. Mainland China, which has a regulated 40-hour week, has learned to leave Hong Kong’s ultimately laissez-faire work model alone – so far – because it gets results.

No surprise then that attempts to get some legislation going to regulate the working week have been excruciatingly slow. Some want the week to be 48 hours long, unions want 44 hours, and others – some politicians and most business owners, the current winners in this skirmish – want the whole issue to be left well alone.

That’s the dilemma you may face as someone who needs or wants to build a Hong Kong-based team: the obvious benefits of long work weeks for employers coupled with the inevitable drawbacks, for instance, employee burnout and disengagement. Wherever your personal stance may be on the controversy, you’ll want an outcome that ultimately benefits your business – and maintaining employees’ health and morale will help drive any company’s success.

Staying fit under fire

The “let’s leave well alone” option is, for one thing, downright unhealthy. Dr Paul Murray is a GP and hypnotherapist working in private practice and with Cathay Pacific airline at Hong Kong International Airport, so he sees business people dashing through the terminal daily and takes a no-nonsense approach to remaining fit under fire from the boss. “It is vital to strike a positive contrast and balance in your life if you’re dealing with Hong Kong working hours,” he says.

Paul adds: “Eat a healthy diet and squeeze some exercise into your daily routine so it becomes an energizing habit – walk, use the stairs, go to the gym – for a short time at the beginning and/or end of the day. You’ll feel better, work better and be happier and in control.”

What he doesn’t advise is a goal-oriented regime, such as the 10,000 steps a day challenge. “Swim, box, dance, walk, whatever you want but enjoy it and have fun,” he says. “That way you’ll keep doing it, which is what matters.”

So, if your company’s Hong Kong branch is looking for ways to encourage its employees to get fit and stay fit, this approach could be just the thing to kick-start a fun fitness policy.

Serious head winds

Ask most people in Hong Kong and they’d trade their working week for a shorter one in a heartbeat. But it’s not so simple as introducing shorter work weeks in your own company as a way to appeal to candidates. The government’s Standard Working Hours Committee, well aware of the price to be paid in terms of health and quality of life, is caught between legislating for the low-paid who need overtime to make ends meet, and overburdened professionals who put in extraordinary hours just to get through their workload.

Plus, Hong Kong has a perfect storm of a labor shortage and extraordinarily high rents. Youngsters can’t afford to buy a home and the number of elderly is outpacing the plummeting birth rate as young couples delay marriage and continue to live with their parents. Christine Loh was in public office in Hong Kong for decades, a former Under Secretary of the Environment, founder of the Citizens Party and of the Civic Exchange think tank. She’s pretty much seen it all and what some may call a perfect storm, she sees as “serious head winds”.

Loh, whose insights are also published in a collection of essays titled No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story, says: “Land and housing prices are sky-high; inequality has widened as Hong Kong has grown still more wealthy; and social mobility is perceived to be blocked.” But she has every confidence that Hong Kong’s future is bright. “Hong Kong has, as a city and as a society, time and again proven its ability to overcome adversity.”

For employers and recruiters this is a golden opportunity, a path toward recruiting the best talent; you can lay your own ground rules – including a company-wide working hours policy – in a mostly unregulated economy to make your business the one that offers employees the package they want and need.

Custom and practice

With unmanageable workload and unreasonable time pressure listed as two major factors in employee burnout, and regular discussion in local Hong Kong media about the related health concerns, it’s worth asking the question. What’s going to save the region and its residents from the culprit of long work hours?

For one thing, the country hosts 8,225 foreign employers (1,313 from the United States) and they bring with them their home work practices, working hours, social norms and so on. These companies can’t wait for legislation because they need to attract the best. So they’re giving their staff more holidays, closing early on Fridays, improving maternity leave, changes that get noticed in a place as small as Hong Kong.

At the same time, Hong Kong’s young workforce is practicing its own form of flexibility, moving between jobs to negotiate better pay and conditions and shaking off the outdated “jobs for life” attitude. Co-working spaces have also mushroomed across the country recently.

Alice Li works for one of the best-known, theDesk, and says: “We’re not aware that the people who rent our spaces work long hours at their desks. They have become entrepreneurs to take control of their lives.”

In that spirit, you are in control of what you can offer these entrepreneurs to attract them to work for – and stay with – you. The gig economy and outside influences might just save the day, or even the week.

Sue Brattle is a journalist and author who has worked in mainland China and now lives and works in Hong Kong. She has just finished co-writing a book about the workplace, The Valueholder: The End of The Employee, which has been published in English and Spanish.

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