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Long work hours and your health

Hong Kong holds a multitude of ‘number ones’, many of which people in the city take pride in. A recent report has awarded the city yet another number one, this time in relation to hours worked. According to UBS’s 2015 Prices and Earnings report people in Hong Kong work an average of 2,606 hours a year, or 50.1 hours a week, the most out of the 71 cities included in the report. Beyond working longer hours, the report found that people in HK only get an average of 17 paid holidays a year, among the lowest of the cities included in the report.

To be honest, this is not really news for those of us who have worked in Hong Kong, after all most people in Hong Kong work 6 days a week, not to mention the fact many in the city need to work longer hours in order to be able to afford to live here. While many in the city are hard working, there is an increasing amount of data pointing to the fact that long working hours could be having a negative impact on your health. Here, we take a look at some of the most common health related effects overwork can have.

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1. You get less sleep

Many expats who move to Hong Kong often comment on the pace of life in the city. It feels like there is always something going on, and people are out and about at all hours. After all, many stores and restaurants are open until 11:00 pm or later, and there’s always bars open somewhere.

These long hours at work staring at computer screens combined with long nights out can have an impact on your sleep. In fact, the Hong Kong Institute of Education reported that in Hong Kong, “The average amount of sleep was just 6.46 hours, “significantly lower” than, for example, Japan and mainland China where people sleep an average of 6.88 hours and 8.07 hours respectively.” It is also far, far shorter than the average recommended 7-8 hours most people should be getting, which in turn leads to what experts refer to as ‘sleep debt’.

According to WebMD, there are both short and long term negative effects sleep debt can have on your health and also put you at risk of developing serious conditions including:

  • Heart diseases (more on that below)
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes

Not to mention the fact that sleep deprivation impairs our ability to concentrate, which could lead to increased risk of accidents at work and decreased productivity.


2. You are putting your heart at risk

Getting less sleep because we are working long hours, combined with the fact that many of us are sitting all day lead to an increasingly sedentary life. This puts us at an increased risk of heart diseases including:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Angina
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD)

While there are many factors that can lead to heart disease, a number of studies have found correlation between heart disease and increased/longer work hours. One study looked at the results of 22,500 people and their working hours and the prevalence of coronary heart disease. It found that there is an “approximately 40% excess risk of CHD in employees working long hours.”. In other words, according to this study, people who work long hours are 40% more likely to develop CHD than those who work normal hours.  


3. You could be drinking more

Q. What’s the fastest thing in Hong Kong?
A. An Expat trying to get to happy hour.

All joking aside, it is fairly common to see people get off work and head straight to the bar, or have a few drinks with dinner. While the health benefits of consuming alcohol are constantly being debated, studies have found that people who work longer hours are more likely to be heavier drinkers.

In an article published by New Scientist it was reported that the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health had analyzed 61 studies from 14 countries, and “found that those who work longer hours are 11 per cent more likely to be heavy drinkers than people who work a standard week of around 40 hours.” The article also mentioned that, “people working 49 to 54 hours a week were 13 per cent more likely to start drinking at “risky” levels. This is defined as 14 drinks a week for women, and 21 drinks a week for men.”

According to the CDC, there are a number of long-term health issues that can stem from, or be exacerbated by, heavy drinking. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Cancer
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Mental health problems including depression and anxiety
  • Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism.

Not to mention the fact that you could also see a decrease in productivity at work if you are constantly dealing with hangovers or the medical conditions related to heavy drinking.


4. You could be stressed

Sure, it would be great to say that our work is not stressful, but for many in the city this is simply not true. An article published by HK magazine on stress in the workplace in 2015 reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Council believes that 1 in 5 people in Hong Kong suffer from mental health issues, mainly attributed to high levels of work stress. To go one step further, the Council conducted a random survey in June 2015 and found that, of the 377 people surveyed, 60 percent suffered from high levels of stress.

High stress can have a negative impact on not only your life, but also your health. Some negative health effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Tiredness
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems

Beyond physical symptoms, stress is well known to have a detrimental effect on your mental health. Some common effects include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability


5. You could be gaining weight

Because many of us sit at computers all day, we are therefore not moving and probably not getting exercise. Combine this with the fact that many people in Hong Kong prefer to eat out rather than cook at home and the increased chances of drinking more alcohol, and it is not uncommon to see people gaining weight, especially if they work longer hours.

Being overweight can have a major impact on your health including increased risk of:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Sleep apnea
  • Some cancers

As you can probably guess, working long hours could have a negative impact on your health, but it can also have an impact at work as well. You may notice that you are having trouble concentrating, having to drink more caffeinated beverages, are more irritable, and more. This can be also be a major problem for companies as you can bet that productivity will not be maximized if your employees work long hours.

That is why it is important for all companies to have a wellness plan that not only addresses long hours, but offers employees and individuals a way to ensure they remain healthy. One of the most important aspects of this will be a health insurance plan that covers any potential care required for care resulting from overworking. To learn more about employee health insurance options, visit Pacific Prime’s Group Insurance page today.

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Jess Lindeman

Content Strategist at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime.

When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.
Jess Lindeman