Career Advice Expert Advice

Worked to death

Are Hong Kong’s sleep-deprived workers pushing themselves dangerously close to physical and mental breakdown? Andrea Zavadszky asks the experts for advice

In our work-hard-play-hard culture, getting inadequate sleep has almost become a badge of honour. In some professions, such as law, advertising or design, young people can work through the night and continue working the following day without any rest – and be proud of it.

A recent global survey by Regus, the international business centre provider, found that 29 per cent of workers slept less than they wished in order to fit in all their commitments. Regus interviewed 24,000 business respondents from over 90 countries in September last year for the survey.

Last November, the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) Department of Social Work found that 54.2 per cent of the 1,002 full-time working adults they interviewed slept less than seven hours, while 6.9 per cent regularly slept under six hours a day.

Although lack of sleep can cause a whole range of problems, including severe health conditions, many people are so used to sleeping less that they don’t even think of it as a problem.

The Regus study also showed that only 23 per cent of Hong Kong respondents felt they were sacrificing sleep to fit in work and personal commitments, although more than half of the city’s working population did not get enough sleep of eight hours.

“In Hong Kong, we have a number of factors contributing to it,” says Marc Burrage, regional director of Hays in Hong Kong. “Typically, working hours are longer, and you can do things 24/7. It is easy to fall into the trap. You work and eat late, socialise late. The offshoot is a lack of sleep.”

Long working hours are a major contributing factor. Another Regus survey in 2011 found that 57 per cent of respondents worked nine hours or more, while 42 per cent took work back home.

The CUHK study also found that 40 per cent of those surveyed worked more than 10 hours a day. Of these respondents, 7.4 per cent worked 14 hours or more a day. Nearly all respondents said the best they could do was to try to have one meal with their family per week.

“It’s certainly no secret that not getting enough sleep affects everything – from people’s moods to energy levels and even their skin. There are also knock-on consequences for families when parents can’t devote enough time and energy to their kids. I think this is a real shame, considering the difference that flexible working arrangements could make,” says Hans Leijten, Regus East Asia VP.

He adds that some 16 per cent of local and mainland parents surveyed said they had missed all or part of their children’s important events, such as birthdays, school plays or parents’ evenings. In Japan, the figure is more than 25 per cent.

“A lot of the cases I deal with are middle- to back-office positions in banking and finance. The hours are really long. It has a big impact on people’s lives – they eat late, they don’t exercise,” says Ambition Hong Kong director Amy Ho.

Chronic tiredness and inadequate sleep have wide-ranging consequences. “A lack of sleep is definitely a significant problem,” says Dr Justin Cheng, executive medical director at Quality HealthCare Medical Services. “It causes lower concentration and productivity, people are more likely to take shortcuts, they may have mood problems. As for medical conditions, it can cause headache, dizziness, diabetes and depression.”

Depression is a serious and dangerous side effect, Cheng says. Its symptoms include staying away from people, lack of interest in any work and sometimes bad temper. The person can also develop suicidal thoughts.

“It is a very serious side effect and has to be given immediate care. This sort of depression can easily be overcome with some help and proper sleep,” Cheng says.

Lack of sleep, mental stress and work pressures can fuel insomnia, which can lead to high blood pressure and increased heart rate.

“In the case of severe insomnia, your mind is locked into a loop, worrying about an event that may never occur. It is a vicious cycle of obnoxious thoughts,” Cheng says, adding it can only be helped by having adequate rest and sleep.

Sleep deprivation can create yet other problems, including accidents and forgetfulness, impaired judgement and early signs of ageing and obesity.

On a brighter note, Ho believes that times are slowly changing. She says more job applicants explicitly say that work-life balance is important to them and ask if the job entails long hours. For example, they would not want to work for a US-based company, as this usually meant late-night conference calls.

Ho says any changes at the workplace have to be driven by the boss and the team should explore ways of working more efficiently.

However, she notes: “If you compare [Hong Kong] with Europe, you can say productivity here is higher. Hong Kong has advanced quickly and there are still lots of growth opportunities here because people are willing to work the extra hours. That’s probably why Hong Kong remains competitive.”

And also perhaps why it’s full of insomniacs.


To die to sleep ... Aye, there’s the rub

  • Manage both your time and your own and others’ expectations
  • Don’t get side-tracked by e-mails and non-work related matters
  • Research your prospective employer’s work culture and work-life balance policies
  • Eat healthy meals, cut down on alcohol, sweets, coffee and caffeinated drinks
  • Keep to regular rest hours, go to bed and get up at the same time
  • Do not use the bedroom for other activities, such as watching TV
  • Exercise regularly, take a break and leave the office for a short time at lunch
  • Cut down on late-night social networking and chat-room discussions