We have seen increasing international coverage of tragic stories 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 tragic 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 as 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 (과로사/過勞死) and in China, overwork-induced suicide is called guolaosi (过劳死).
The issue of long working hours and an absence of staff taking holidays and leave, is not just an issue in Japan. In other parts of Asia, the "long-hour" culture is also prevalent. Staff in Hong Kong are said to work on average the longest hours in Asia-Pac. A UBS survey in 2016 revealed that Hong Kong employees have the longest working week out of employees in 71 cities around the world. Hong Kong employees 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 working behaviours to prevail. As part of that scrutiny, inevitably some generalisations and assumptions emerge. One such assumption is that Asia does not have developed labour laws and that staff are working in an unregulated legal environment. However, that assumption is far from accurate.
Japan has in place developed labour laws and those carrying out business and working in Asia often consider it to be one of the most regulated countries in this region. Japanese law provides that employers who engage 10 or more individuals are required to establish work rules. These negotiated rules should cover working start and finish time, breaks, rest days, leave etc. 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 8 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 then the usual maximum is 45 hours per month.
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, albeit they are unlikely to take legal 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 the length of service.
It is therefore clear that the issue of excessive working hours cannot be addressed by simply focusing on more legal rules. The individuals who work themselves to death are invariably "entitled" to take time away from the office and lead a more balanced working life.
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 business partners and customers will not deal with their organisation if they fail to look after their own people, this will be of greater influence than just legal 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 the leaders and managers working with an employee and, critically, the expectations of the individual him or herself, 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" on Saturday 15 July 2017.