FEATURE: Deadly stress

HONG KONG (China Daily/ANN) - Work stress in HK is often said to be more intense than in other places. It’s an affliction that takes its toll — sometimes with deadly consequences.

 At times, more frequently than employers like to admit, the pressure becomes so much that it can turn deadly.  

Hong Kong has gained some notoriety for its long working hours and the high demand for results. Nowhere does the rat race run faster than at banks, law firms and consulting firms. Yet, despite all such pressure weighing on the working person, stress management gets barely a lick and a promise and that bodes a worsening problem.

The most infamous case in Hong Kong, and possibly the most tragic, claimed the lives of two innocent victims. The two women, both Indonesians, died under the hand of Rurik Jutting, a British investment banker turned sadistic killer. The case turned the spotlight on work-related stress in Hong Kong.  

Jutting had been a vice-president at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong. He was a graduate of Cambridge University. After the shocking murders were discovered in 2014, Jutting confessed he had been taking heavy doses of cocaine. He said that he had cracked under the pressure of his banking career, especially that from his immediate superior. His defense at trial argued that he had developed multiple mental disorders and spiraled out of control. He’d been calling in sick. In the final month of his employment he worked only between 10 and 15 days.

Jutting picked up his victims in local bars. He persuaded them to come to his apartment. It was the last place they ever went. Their mutilated bodies were found in suitcases on his apartment balcony.
Mortal work custom

The average work hours in any given day in Hong Kong can stretch long into the night, extending the drive for success and profit into a near mania. Working hours in Hong Kong far exceed those of other major cities. The numbers are there in black and white.  A report by the Census and Statistics Department revealed that Hong Kong employees work an average of 2,300 hours a year. In the more sanguine cities of the industrialized world, employees work only 1,700 hours, on average.  

Another study released in May 2016, surveying work hours across 71 cities done by the international bank UBS found Hong Kong’s workforce has worked the longest by far. The average weekly working hours in Hong Kong from 15 professions are 50.11. Working hours in Paris average 30.84 hours per week (the shortest work week among all cities), compared to 43.78 hours in Mumbai, which has the second longest work week, according to the study.

In the world of draft animals only horses are expected to work 50 hours a week. The impact on people forced to pull the plough for 50 hours a week can be crushing.

There was a case in 2014 of a junior-level investment banker at JPMorgan who jumped off the roof of the bank’s Hong Kong headquarters. The young man had complained to a colleague that the stress was breaking him down. The media caught on  and highlighted the stressful work environment among investment bankers.  

When working conditions are so brutally intense, local authorities need to step in and take a lead in ameliorating the toxic climate.

There are no laws in Hong Kong to define or identify work stress and no ordinances to manage it. Employers are obliged to ensure the health and safety of employees, and which looks good on paper, but in a highly pressurized environment some employees are afraid to confess that they are cracking under pressure. When the pressure is that intense it’s easy to see why. Some mental health practitioners call stress a disability, but work stress is not found in the Hong Kong Disability Discrimination Ordinance.

When the mantra of a city like Hong Kong is “money, money, money”, the competition to get that money is brutal, entailing profit targets, getting new clients, winning new business, and the siren song of bonuses. There are urgent emails coming late at night, myriad meetings and immediate deadlines workers find hard to get through.

Under the watchful scowl of Big Brother — the boss  —workers think they have to put in longer hours than the guy at the next desk, and toil at the office even after the boss goes home, otherwise there goes that promotion.

How bad is it? In 2004, the Occupational Safety and Health Council found that 60 percent of local workers are under severe stress in the finance, property management and telecoms industries.

Au Yeung Kwok-leung, a Hong Kong-based psychiatrist, told China Daily: “You might think this sounds ridiculous, but in a working environment where everyone around you has the same workload, and the same 12-hour shift, it makes you feel it’s normal and you try to do your best to fit in. Your body just cannot deal with these working hours and workload.” 

“Hong Kong is not the worst in terms of suicide rate in Asia. Japan and South Korea, from what I know, have serious work-related stress,” Au Yeung added.  

In Japan, the government has warned that one in five workers is at risk of dying from overwork. In 2014, a 27-year-old dropped dead at his firm’s dormitory. He died of heart failure. Japan’s labor standards authority ruled that his death was directly related to long overtime hours he was forced to work.

“Teachers in Hong Kong are also highly stressed,” Au Yeung added. “Accountants and lawyers are on the list. It’s not uncommon for my patients in these fields to work more than 12 hours a day, six days a week.”

Banks usually offer attractive benefits, but some people with a sense of work-life balance won’t be attracted to the banking industry. The pressure of meeting sales quotas, long working hours and that exerted from upstairs present discouraging prospects.

Joe Chan, who worked at a Hong Kong-based bank for four years, said the stress got to be too much for him. He quit his job and went to work for the government. “It is true that government positions offer fewer benefits than the bank and the pay here is lower too,” Chan told China Daily. “However, I never got off work on time, and I used to be asked to travel to other countries and regions during weekends to attend social events with clients and sometimes to entertain them the whole day. I never got to rest.”

Chan, who now finishes work and goes home on schedule, has a life back. “I feel like even if I could earn more at the bank, I would never have the time and energy to spend my money and enjoy life. I am a lot happier now,” he added.
A thoughtless business

Hong Kong has no “specific laws placing onus on employers to identify and manage their employees’ mental health”, said Kathryn Weaver, a lawyer who specializes in employment law at Lewis Silkin, a private law firm with offices in London, Oxford and Hong Kong. “Due to the culture of working hard over long hours in Hong Kong, stress is almost an expected part of people’s working life here.”

Case law is also very sparse on the subject. In a 2009 case, an employer fired a worker who later filed suit claiming stress-based discrimination. The employer won the case in the end, relying on the “inherent requirements of the job”. Issues covered by the Disability Discrimination Ordinance are often shrouded in gray areas and subject to broad interpretation.

 “The importance of recognizing mental health concerns and raising awareness relating to stress and anxiety is becoming more prevalent, especially in the workplace, but this still remains a “taboo” topic, leading employees to feel less inclined to express their need for help,” said Weaver. In Hong Kong — as in other places like the Chinese mainland and Singapore — there remains a stigma associated with an inability to cope with one’s workload, regardless of how heavy it is.

In terms of treatment, Au Yeung said talk therapy and medications are still the most effective ways to help patients. If a patient comes to you for help, that means the person is aware of the problem which is the first step and perhaps the most important step. Following that, a psychiatrist usually helps by offering consultation therapy or prescribing medications at times.

“A suitable amount of stress is normal, and could even help with productivity. But if you are under an abnormal amount of stress for a long time, it can give rise to mental health issues affecting sleep, eating habits, even social life and family time,” Au Yeung said. “The end result could range from depression, to anxiety, and to more serious cases like panic attacks, violent behavior, and even suicide.” 

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