24 March 2019
Many workers have to work harder, even bring work home, to be able to keep their jobs. Photo: Reuters
Many workers have to work harder, even bring work home, to be able to keep their jobs. Photo: Reuters

Why it’s becoming more difficult to keep work-life balance

Sociologists and HR managers have been calling for work-life balance. But employees are actually spending more time at work, and have less time to enjoy life.

Take the United States for example. Many might think American workers can achieve better work-life balance with the advent of new internet technologies. Instead, they are devoting even more hours to their work.

Full-time American workers spent an average of 8.89 hours per day in their workplace last year, compared with 8.45 hours in 2007 when the iPhone was launched, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. On top of that, they spent an average of 3.28 hours on work at home last year, compared with 2.92 hours in 2007.

That means full-time American workers devoted as many as 12.17 hours per day to work last year, 48 minutes longer than in 2007. In a full year, that means they worked 238 hours or 20 days more compared with 10 years ago.

In the US, only blue-collar workers in Michigan and Texas faced tough competition from cheap overseas labor in the past. But as internet technology accelerates globalization, economies now compete more directly and furiously against one another in all aspects.

Even office workers and professionals are feeling the threat. Jobs such as customer service, IT system maintenance, programming, design and translation can now be outsourced to China and India. American workers have to work harder to keep their jobs.

Smartphones have made communication much easier. But the downside is that employers and customers now expect workers to be on standby around the clock.

The internet boom has created legendary figures and instilled a culture of hard work.

Workers in internet firms in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen usually work 17 to 18 hours a day. Alibaba employees are said to take sleeping bags to the office when it’s Singles’ Day. To solve a production issue, Tesla’s founder Elon Musk had to sleep on the factory floor. “My T-shirt has not been washed for a whole week,” Musk said in an interview.

How about the situation in Hong Kong? A worker in the city spends an average of 45 hours per week at work, similar to the number a decade ago, according to official data.

But that’s not the entire picture. Workers who work overtime typically don’t get compensation for the extra hours they put in.

In reality, Hong Kong workers work 50.11 hours per week, the longest in a UBS survey of workers in 71 cities across the world. Work hours are the shortest in Paris, where workers work only 30.84 hours a week.

In mainland China, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the nation’s leading think tank, recently suggested that the country should phase in a shorter four-day work week by 2030.

Employers clearly do not share the view. Guangzhou R&F Properties has issued an internal memo saying that lunch break is being cut to half an hour.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 19

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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