Business Comment & Analysis

Forget standardising working hours, it’s time to fix standard working culture

Parallel with ongoing calls for legislation over standard working hours, Hong Kongers need to address the misconception that more “face-time” and longer hours are characteristics of a good employee, something deeply rooted in the East Asian work ethic.

Rather than “work-hard, play-hard”, we have grown accustomed to expectations of “work-hard, work-some-more”.  Some may claim that this stoic work attitude is the embodiment of the so-called “Lion Rock Spirit”, a penchant for hardship and perseverance that has allowed Hong Kong to endure through the years.  Sadly, the Lion Rock mythos is outdated and uninspiring for today’s generation of young workers.

office stress

Photo: PixaBay.

Long working hours rarely mean greater productivity, quite often the opposite.  Using the Total Economy Database compiled by The Conference Board, a business and economics NGO, along with data from the Asian Productivity Organization (APO), a regional think-tank, we can see that labour productivity in Hong Kong ranks among the lowest within developed countries (blue).  We are even surpassed by Japan, a classic “textbook” case of low productivity due to excessive working hours and rigid corporate bureaucracy.  It is worth noting that all East Asian economies fare poorly in this ranking.

labour productivity

The APO applies proprietary adjustments to economic data to make estimates comparable across geographies, which results in an assumption of a 42-hour work week for Hong Kong.  In contrast, data reported by the HKSAR’s Census and Statistics Department and Labor Department put the average work week at a whopping 49 hours.  After incorporating the CSD’s numbers, Hong Kong’s ranking drops further still, becoming on par with the likes of Greece.

Hong Kongers work hard but they evidently do not work smart.  The “Lion Rock Spirit” of unwavering diligence may have benefitted the Hong Kong of yesteryear, a manufacturing-centric economy dominated by workers cranking out widgets on a factory assembly line, but is hampering competitiveness and innovation in today’s service-oriented and technology-driven businesses.

Older generations frequently complain about gwailo being lazy.  The figures above corresponding to Western nations do not support this stereotype at all.  Perhaps it boils down to jealousy over those “foreign devils” being highly efficient in what they do despite clocking in fewer hours?  In any case, legally-enforced standard working hours will be a welcome step forward, but old-fashioned mentors and parents also need to stop patronizing young workers with advice like “be the first to arrive at the office and last to leave” or “remember to stay later than the boss”…

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Forget standardising working hours, it's time to fix standard working culture