Career Advice Legal Case studies for employers

The problem of overworking needs more than just a legal approach

Published on Saturday, 15 Jul 2017

We have increasingly seen tragic news reports of individuals who die directly or indirectly as a consequence of excessive working hours.

Japan is often the subject of particular focus. In June this year, the BBC reported the death of 27-year-old Nayoa Nishigaki. His mother was quoted as saying: “He usually worked until the last train, but if he missed it he slept at his desk. In the worst case, he had to work overnight through to 10pm the next evening, working 37 hours in total”.

Nayoa Nishigaki’s death was a result of an overdose of medication, but it was officially recorded as a case of “karoshi”. This is the acknowledged concept of death by overwork in Japan. Such a concept is also recognised in South Korea where it is referred to as gwarosa and in China, overwork-induced suicide is called guolaosi.

The issue of long working hours and staff not taking holidays and leave is not only an issue in Japan. In other parts of Asia, a long-hours culture is also prevalent. Staff in Hong Kong are said to work on average the longest hours in the whole Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, a UBS survey in 2016 revealed that Hong Kong employees have the longest working week among employees in 71 cities around the world. They clock up an average of 50.1 hours per week, which is far above the average in Paris of 30.8 hours and even the 39.4 average in Shanghai.

These tragedies understandably generate a high level of scrutiny about the environments that allow such excessive work behaviour to prevail. As part of that scrutiny, some generalisations and assumptions increasingly emerge. One such is that Asia lacks developed labour laws and that staff are working in an unregulated environment. However, that assumption is far from accurate.

Japan has in place thorough labour laws and people carrying out business and working in Asia often consider it one of the most regulated countries in the region. Japanese law provides that employers who engage 10 or more individuals are required to establish work rules. These negotiated rules should cover start and finish times, breaks, rest days, leave and so on. These rules then become part of the contractual arrangement between the individual employee and the company.

The legislation in Japan also provides that an employer cannot require employees to work for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours per week. Although it is possible to extend these hours, it requires a labour management agreement with either a labour union or an employee representative and even then the usual maximum is 45 hours per week.

Hong Kong does not currently have any limit on working hours. However, it has been looking at this issue and some legal developments are being discussed, though they are unlikely to take effect for a number of years. While there is currently no local cap on working hours in Hong Kong, there are detailed minimum protections providing employees with a statutory rest day every week, 12 statutory holidays each year, and annual leave of between 7 and 14 days, depending on length of service.

It is therefore clear that the issue of excessive working hours cannot be addressed by simply focusing on a wider legal framework. The individuals who work themselves to death are invariably “entitled” to take time away from the office and lead a more balanced life. The problem is they often don’t.

It also seems clear that the situation will only be addressed by changing the fundamental culture within the society in which an organisation operates. If businesses know that their partners and customers will not deal with their organisation should they fail to look after their own staff, this will have a much greater influence than mere regulation.

It is often said that, in Asia, the principle of hierarchy and complex social structures result in an unhealthy culture of “presenteeism” and a reluctance for individuals to speak out. It is therefore even more important that these issues are discussed openly. As with all cultural changes, the drive must come from the top. The way employees are recognised, rewarded and promoted must also reflect the same message. Without a concerted effort to alter the expectations of leaders and managers and, critically, the expectations of individual employees, it seems likely more tragic deaths will occur.


This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Overworking needs more than a legal approach.