Life in a pressure cooker |
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Life in a pressure cooker

Published on Friday, 11 Jun 2010
Illustration: Bay Leung
Protesters outside an authorised Apple retail store in Hong Kong urge Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs to boycott Foxconn, which has been accused of using military-style management techniques. Recently, several Foxconn employees had committed suicide.
Photo: Bloomberg News

The Foxconn suicide tragedies have exposed not only the plight of migrant workers on the mainland, but also mounting stress levels and pressure at work. In this two-part series, we examine workplace stress in Hong Kong, its causes and how to address this issue.

Job stress is a serious problem for employees and employers because it undercuts the true meaning of work, reduces productivity and has negative long-term health consequences for staff.

Dr Lee Sing, director of the Hong Kong Mood Disorders Centre at the Chinese University, says about 10 per cent of the city's adult population, aged 18 to 65, suffer varying degrees of depression.

Many depression cases are believed to be stress-induced, caused by job demands and pressure at work.

Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a founding member of social think-tank the Community Development Initiative, says long working hours and the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end job, with little job security, can lead to depression, while work stress often leads to mental and physical burnout.

"For those who are stressed out, it's very important to have support from family and friends, and talking to people whom you can trust is a good start," Cheung says. "The Foxconn case highlights the importance of the human touch in personnel management, and that respect and recognition motivate staff more than financial and material rewards." Social welfare legislator Peter Cheung Kwok-che says even social workers, who offer counselling services, are struggling to cope. He says about 15 per cent have shown serious symptoms of depression, 8 per cent have anxiety disorders, while 6 per cent have aggressive tendencies. A small percentage of the city's 15,000 social workers even have suicidal tendencies.

Peter Cheung says Foxconn is an extreme case because the company used military-style management techniques to maximise productivity. But the case has underlined the value of work-life balance and a good social network, especially for young employees.

"It's been reported that Foxconn workers were not even allowed to chat with each other over lunch," he says. "It's not difficult to imagine how suppressed these young workers must feel in this pressure-cooker work environment."

Willy Kwong, of the Community Development Initiative, has encountered many cases where staff were victimised by employers when they tried to fight for better pay and benefits.

"The fact that Hong Kong does not have sufficient laws to protect employee rights, such as an entitlement to a reasonable minimum wage, has provided fertile ground for stress," he says.

Lee says Hong Kong has only about 60 private mental health professionals and the waiting time to get help from public hospitals can be as long as one year.

He adds that many doctors tend to treat only the physical symptoms and manifestations of emotional and mental health problems, such as insomnia, headaches and stomach pains, without tackling the root causes.

He says employers need to recognise that their employees' mental health is as important as their physical well-being.

Warning signs

  • A sudden drop in productivity for a prolonged period
  • A lack of concentration
  • Consistently taking sick leave, or leaving work early and arriving late
  • Frequent headaches, stomach pains, tiredness and dizziness
  • Becoming uninterested in people and social activities
  • A loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss
  • Suffer from insomnia
  • Frequent mood swings and negative thoughts

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