Opinion: Overwork doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run, and can lead to tragedy

Author: Pattie Walsh, Partner, Bird & Bird | Date: 10 Aug 2016

Employers need to understand the legal framework in place to prevent dangerously long office hours, says Pattie Walsh

Pattie WalshThe international press has been covering the tragic story of a 34-year-old Japanese man who killed himself after working more than 90 hours a week on a sustained basis. In Japan, the idea of death through overwork is an acknowledged concept known as karoshi. Tragic stories of this sort regularly appear both inside and outside the country.
However, the issue of long working hours and a lack of staff taking holidays and leave is not just an issue in Japan. In other parts of Asia, the ‘long hours’ culture is also prevalent. Staff in Hong Kong are said to work on average the longest hours in the Asia-Pacific region. A UBS survey earlier this year revealed that Hong Kong employees have the longest working week out of employees in 71 cities around the world. They clock up an average of 50.1 hours per week, which is far above the average in Paris (30.8 hours) and even the 39.4 hours averaged in Shanghai.
This may lead to the assumption 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 is one of the more regulated countries in Asia in this area. Japanese law states that employers who engage 10 or more individuals are required to establish work rules. These negotiated rules should cover areas such as working start and finish time, breaks, rest days and leave. These rules then become part of the contractual arrangement between the employee and the organisation.
The legislation in Japan also provides that an employer cannot require employees to work for more than eight 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 extension is 45 hours per month.
While Hong Kong does not currently have any limit on working hours, it has been looking at this issue and has established a Standard Working Hours Committee. A detailed public consultation concluded on 24 July and it remains to be seen how the results of that process will be acted upon. However, 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 seven and 14 days depending on the length of service.
The issue of overworking is clearly not addressed simply by putting in place 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, but they choose not to.
It seems clear that the situation will only be addressed by changing the fundamental culture within the individual's organisation. There needs to be a positive shift to make it unacceptable for the individual to work excessive hours; not least because it is highly unlikely to be in the best interests of the organisation in the longer term. However, 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 is possible more tragic deaths could occur.
Pattie Walsh is a partner at international law firm Bird & Bird.