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HK learns to deal with stress

Published on Friday, 09 Apr 2010
Illustration: Bay Leung
Working out in the gym relieves stress for many people and can help achieve a healthy work-life balance.
Photo: Dustin Shum

One surprise in the findings of a recent business survey was that Hong Kong's privately held businesses reportedly coped with the stresses of last year much better than their counterparts around the world. That was the headline conclusion of a study commissioned by international accountancy firm Grant Thornton but, as with many such broad-based analyses, the devil is in the detail.

The key factor allowing Hong Kong to top a list of 30-plus countries was that, in the latest survey, only 39 per cent of 200 local respondents "said their stress levels have increased over the past year". That marked a clear downward trend from the 67 per cent recorded in 2007 in response to similar questions. It contrasted with the mainland, Vietnam and Mexico where more than 70 per cent of those surveyed were reporting much higher stress levels last year compared with 2008.

Hong Kong executives might indeed have achieved the "biggest drop" in stress over the past three years. However, Gary James, tax partner for Grant Thornton in Hong Kong, says it is important to bear in mind cultural and historical contexts.

As a community, Hong Kong already "accepted" long hours, short vacations and constant pressure as the norm. What counts as stress in, say, Greece or Spain, does not necessarily register in the same way here. And having ridden an economic rollercoaster over the past decade or so, local business owners have become more proficient at handling adversity and taking major crises in their stride.

"Today, they will not exhaust themselves on any unnecessary worry and stress," James says. He notes that this is one sign people are getting the message about the importance of a work-life balance. Another is that, among respondents in Asia, those in Hong Kong have taken the most days off in the previous 12 months - an average of 14 days excluding public holidays. "There is a reasonably clear link between stress and vacation taken," James says. "They don't exactly correlate, but you don't have to make a quantum leap."

For Shaun Bernier, managing director of Community Business, it is encouraging news that company owners are apparently finding ways to reduce stress and create a better work-life balance, but more has to be done.

The organisation's own research, conducted in partnership with the University of Hong Kong and with a sample size of about 1,000 businesses, found that commendable initiatives at the top of a company don't necessarily filter all the way down.

"From our experience, there can be support for work-life-balance policies and flexible hours at the uppermost levels," she says. "But while senior leaders may back certain initiatives, sometimes there is a middle management 'bottleneck', so lower-level employees still work long hours, have little time for themselves and suffer health problems."

When working alongside employers, Community Business advises using surveys to understand which issues are important to staff, and to look at company demographics to implement measures which relieve stress in practical ways.

Breaking it down  

In assessing stress levels felt by owners of privately held business, the Grant Thornton-sponsored survey considered factors such as: 

  • heavy workloads
  • pressure on cash flow
  • economic climate
  • competitor activities
  • volume of communication
  • internal conflicts/ office politics


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