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Overwork in Asia: Why is it Not Worth It?

Work hard, play hard – you hear it all the time. You know that if you want to achieve something great, you will need to spend numerous hours focusing on achieving that goal. But how hard is hard enough? When are you allowed to “play hard” without feeling guilty? Depends on where you ask.

East Asian metropolises set sky-scraping standards on working hours. In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people work 75 hours per week. Singapore, another Asian financial center, remains a home to some of the hardest working employees in the developed world, with its citizens working for 45 hours a week on average. The Chinese concept popular among employees in the tech industry called “996” denotes a culture of tight working days: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. work 6 days per week. These long working hours are not necessarily imposed on employees but they are aware that overtime hours are expected of them. Although tracking working hours is not an easy task due to the complexity of measuring outside-of-office overtime hours, the readiness of urban Asia’s citizens to make sacrifices for career is clear.


You may be familiar with the most detrimental consequence of overwork. Asian languages even have an official name for it: karoshi in Japanese, guolaosi in Mandarin, or gwarosa in Korean, meaning death or suicide from overwork. It has been reported that 1,456 Japanese citizens died in 2016 as a result of karoshi, i.e. of poor health or suicide resulting from working too much. These extreme cases show just how significant the problem is, bringing attention to the influence of working habits on our overall well-being.

Starting with mental health, overwork increases the level of stress one experiences which can in combination with a lack of sleep and exercise seriously damage one’s health. A lack of rest leads to exhaustion and even more stress, which can in short term result with headaches, muscle tension and sleep problems, and cause anxiety, irritability or even depression in the long term. Overworking also means one has less time to cook balanced meals and tends to eat meals outside that may be of questionable nutritional value. Choosing to spend almost all of our daily energy on work causes the body to enter a state of disbalance which, as upsetting Asian cases of karoshi, guolaosi or gwarosa show, can even lead to death.

Long working hours also negatively affect employees’ relationships and family life. Young adults are deciding to have less or no children because they cannot find a way to balance family life with career. This reduces fertility rates and places high burdens on already ageing economies. Industrious younger generations have less time to take care of their parents who now live longer than previous generations. Raising children next to having a demanding job in Asian metropolises is a special challenge as well. On a somewhat more subjective note, a lack of attention given to children whose parents tend to spend many hours overworking can be a serious problem for their development. Science is clear on the importance of attention and love given to a child in the first few years of its life for its later development. Therefore, parents’ lack of presence must have an effect on their children’s mental state. Although parents often work hard because they worry about securing their children’s future, the balance between financial support and showing affection by being present is critical and increasingly challenging to achieve for many parents.


Long working hours are not a problem characteristic for Asia only, but the continent does stand out, especially compared to developed parts of the world like Europe and Australia. So why do working standards in (South-East) Asia deviate so much from European ones? 

Reasons are various and can be divided into legal, cultural and historical ones. Hong Kong, for instance, has no statutory standard working hours system nor a statutory maximum number of hours. Regulation on overtime work hours, rest days, maternity protection and similar do exist but when it comes to working hours, the city maintains a laissez-faire labour policy. Legal protection of workers, however, is on the rise in Asian metropolises. Last year, South Korean government reduced the limit on working hours from 68 to 40 hours per week, with 12 hours of paid overtime allowed. According to the country’s president, this was an “important opportunity to move away from a society of overwork and move toward a society of spending time with families.” This decision openly aimed to increase fertility rates in the country. On the other hand, limiting working hours results with more job openings. Companies need to hire more workers for the same amount of work to be done, which can stimulate the economy.

When it comes to cultural reasons, they are much more deeply inherited than any others in these societies. Working culture in China and Japan is strongly hierarchical and demanding, motivating people to work with pressure instead of freedom. Employers in big companies expect ambitious employees to stay long at work, preferably leaving the office after their bosses do. Hard work is also a traditional Asian value, with some saying it comes from Confucius’ teachings. The fact that Asia is highly populated while sufficient working and schooling opportunities are lacking also increases the competition.

Historical reasons play a role in the working culture as well. In countries such as Singapore which has experienced a strong economic growth in recent decades, “study hard and work hard” mantra is the heritage of the history of seeking a better life and building cities attractive to foreign investors. This desire to attract foreign investment has also been described as the race to the bottom, i.e. deregulation of businesses in order to make a country more attractive for investment. Labour costs are an important factor in business competitiveness, inducing governments to deregulate the labour market. This deregulation allows employers to set working hours and conditions as they judge appropriate.


Yet, productivity is an important factor in business competitiveness as well. Germany is a country with an average of 34.3 hours of work per week and it still has a highly competitive economy. Although Germany is more developed than countries like China and Indonesia and is thus not directly comparable to them, this can still show how additional hours of work are often not spent productively. Research by AIA Vitality showed that absence and presenteeism (being present at work but not being productive) resulted with nearly 71 days of time lost per employee per year in Hong Kong. Malaysia and Singapore lost an average of 66 and 54 days respectively, compared to 45 days in Australia and 30 days in the UK. This illustrates how long working hours do negatively affect the employee’s health and the ability to focus, leading to unproductivity and losses for both employees and employers. The same survey showed that the mentioned countries also recorded high levels of depression in several sectors such as construction, financial and insurance. 

This all serves to show that Asia needs to rethink its culture of work. Legal changes in countries such as South Korea and Japan demonstrate that more governments are deciding to stop closing their eyes to the issue. More and more companies are also realising that different working models could result with better well-being of their employees, increasing companies’ performance due to a higher productivity of their workers. However, deeply inherited cultural values and high competitiveness in countries like China make working culture shifts less likely to occur fast. While we should respect the fact that people of different cultures and histories can have contrasting views on career and work-life balance, research on the mental health of overworking Asian employees is a red alarm that should start being taken more seriously.


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