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Dealing with job dissatisfaction
Published on Friday, 04 Dec 2009
HSBC staff take some time off work to learn to play African drums during Work-Life Balance Day.

When Helen Chan was hired by a large local public relations firm, she expected to be busy. But as her client list grew, the company's policy of putting customers first meant her work often stretched late into the night and to weekends.

"My boss told me I had to attend to customers' requests even outside my working hours," she said. "I didn't have time to do anything after work. Even at weekends, I was forced to work when my boss or seniors called me. I always felt exhausted and my appetite was affected." 

Chan's story is a common one in Hong Kong, where the average employee works eight hours more than the International Labour Organisation's recommended 40-hour week.

Long hours and stressful work mean many people have a poor work-life balance. In a survey of 1,013 Hong Kong employees, conducted by non-profit Community Business earlier this year, respondents on average wanted a work-life balance ratio of 62:38 but felt an 83:17 ratio was closer to their situation.

On a scale of one to 10, employees gave their companies a score of 4.7 for addressing work-life balance - the same as three years ago.

Shaun Bernier, managing director of Community Business, said companies found it difficult to address work-life balance because they incorrectly saw it as meaning that staff were leaving work early or not doing their job properly. Some thought profits would be hurt. "It's a very misunderstood issue," she said. 

Work-life balance can be promoted through introducing a more balanced approach to work. "Companies that address it will see increased motivation and engagement, increased staff retention and reduced absenteeism," Bernier said. 

She added that Hong Kong's position as a regional hub placed distinctive demands on workers. "You're expected to be on call late in the evening or early in the morning."

Attempts to limit working hours are also hindered by the work ethic so pervasive in Hong Kong and across Asia.

"The trend of staying late is big here," Bernier said. "We don't want to leave before our boss or our colleagues. The longer the hours we work, the better the employee we're perceived to be. This needs to some extent to be turned on its head."

She said the downturn had made companies more wary of things that they felt affected their profits and so increased their fears about work-life balance. But now that business is recovering, Bernier expected more firms to take the issue seriously. 

"Companies may start to pay the price if they haven't addressed this issue as employees will be able to move elsewhere," she said. 

Despite the various challenges, many organisations in Hong Kong have succeeded in adopting wide-ranging and innovative policies to promote work-life balance.

Erica Pompen, senior consultant and head of the Asia-Pacific digital lifestyle practice with public relations firm Text 100, said the company held weekly meetings to review employee workloads and allocated more support to anybody who might be overworked.

Pompen said the company encouraged staff to take regular leave and discouraged them from saving up leave or carrying it over to another year.

Juhanie Cheung, education manager with the British Council, said the council had offered extensive support to help him and his wife balance having a new baby and continuing to work. He was given leave, offered highly flexible working hours and allowed to work from home if needed.

"If it wasn't for the benefits, our entire lives would have changed," Cheung said. "We would have had to change jobs ... get a maid or even move house."

Carol Wong Siu-wai, director of communications for the British Council, said work-life balance was high on the council's agenda in terms of its corporate policy and that its strategies were progressive. 

The council engages its staff in open dialogue to offer them the chance to talk about issues related to work-life balance. "Some of those have surfaced," she said. "What we are going to do is take it forward to see if there are potential solutions."

Shirley Kwong, division head of local corporates, commercial banking, at HSBC, said she had benefited from the bank's flexible working policies when her helper had to return home for an emergency. "My immediate boss told me I could work from home and, if my family needed me, I could be there to help them. I really appreciated that flexibility."

Kwong said HSBC encouraged staff to leave on time, so much so that a "leave on time" campaign was initiated where staff were given a sign they could display on their desks if they left on time.

She said the bank had sports teams and two gyms. "At one point, I went to the gym three lunchtimes a week. They have a lot of health classes that you can go to," she said.


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