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back to index backASIAtalk July,  2005

Workaholism in Asia

Although workaholism may be the subject of much mirth and humour - in reality, it is not a joke. This is because it affects the efficiency and productivity of the companies in which the workaholics are found. Contrary to most expectations, true workaholics are not usually productive workers - they are often people who work very hard for a poor productivity return. Because the productivity of the true workaholic falls over time, the productivity of the company also slips. And this affects the bottom line. If workaholism is widespread in a company, then the cumulative effect the bottom line can be disastrous - and all the while, on the whole working team is apparently working harder and harder.

Hard work and workaholism distinguished

The mere fact an employee is working hard or working for long hours is not, in itself, an example of workaholism. We want employees to work hard and, where necessary, for long hours. What becomes the problem is where this work pattern is sustained over a long period of time. The process of work itself - not the positive results of work - becomes the stimulus and reward for the worker. Therefore, when the workaholic employee's efficiency drops, he/she just works harder for yet longer hours and still feels good about it. The worker is the last to see the problem because he/she is addicted to work. The company finds it hard to identify the problem because the company - wrongly - thinks the workaholic is one of its best employees. It is a dangerous situation where the self deception of both the employee and the company can lead to both sinking. Worse still, workaholism may even be reported positively in some staff appraisal formats.

Awareness in Asia

At this time we are in the early stages of awareness about the extent of the problem in Asia, but figures from other parts of the world indicate that longer and longer working hours are taking their toll.

'Karoshi' - the Japanese experience

The Japanese term for workaholism is 'karoshi' and it involves the concept of working yourself to death. A huge number of cases were seen in Japan's economic boom in the early 1980s but shortly after this, in a breakthrough for an enlightened HR environment, Japan legally recognised 'karoshi' as a work-related hazard. Since then, over 30,000 Japanese have been diagnosed as victims. The explosion of work-related deaths caused the Japanese government to legislate a national pension system for families of 'karoshi' victims. No other Asian nation have come anywhere near the Japanese model in their recognition of the effects of workaholism.

Overseas trends

A study in the US showed that one in five Americans show up for work whether they were ill, injured or had medical appointments. Similarly, one in five hard-working Americans refrain from taking their holidays and this has been identified as a risk factor, leading to early death. The workaholic may fear going on leave, in case he finds someone else in his position when he gets back. Workaholics also form an over estimation of their own importance and believe it will all collapse if they go away for a few weeks. Americans passed Japanese as the world's most overworked population in the mid-1990s. They now work an average of 1979 hours a year, about three-and-a-half weeks more than the Japanese, six-and-a-half weeks more than the British and about twelve-and-a-half weeks more than their German counterparts. Research shows that Australians are also working longer hours and the percentage of those working only a 40-hour week dropped by 10% between 1983 and 1998.

Statistics in Asian 'tiger' economies

But what of the statistics for the rest of Asia - for the 'tiger' economies we admire so much? Dr Chua Hong Choon, chief of General Psychiatry 2 at the Singapore Institute of Mental Health, says: "Many of the statistics we currently have about work stress are from the US, where HR managers have gained a heightened awareness of work stress and its effect on performance and productivity. The interesting thing about the Singapore situation specifically - and the Asian situation generally - is that we have no separate analysis of the situation in each country to see how it differs from, or is similar to, that in the US. My feeling, purely on an intuitive basis, is that we will find that the statistics are the same or similar in Singapore and in other Asian 'tiger' economies as well. The big task we have at the moment is to collect data in Singapore over the next 12 months to confirm or challenge our intuitive feelings." Adding to which he says: "one case where my intuition is reinforced by the facts is that we have a noticeable increase in the number of large companies approaching us for assistance with running work life balance programs. The employee assistance programs we are promoting seem to be striking a resonant chord. I think there is a real underlying problem and employers are becoming aware of it." In recognition that a problem exists, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, director of quality work life department in NTUC, recently commented: "often, we hear Singaporeans bemoan how stressful it is to work in Singapore. In fact, stress can be managed. We need to do more to increase the awareness among companies about the debilitating effects of stress on workplace."

Binge working

Binge working can be a trigger to workaholism, and it is the type of situation which arises where there is a sudden need for the employee to put in a huge effort and long work hours to meet a special contract or challenge. The workload for a period of weeks becomes out of all proportion to what it is usually. This is a common occurrence in many businesses. The employee is surprised - and often stimulated - at how effectively he/she works in this period of intense work. It can be an exciting time. Having seen the success of this work binge, the employee wrongly assumes 'I can work like this all the time'. The experience of meeting a binge workload turns into a life of constant work bingeing, and the ability to meet the work demands at peak performance all the time diminishes. Unless controlled, the experience of binge working can lead to fully developed workaholism.

Setting boundaries

 One of the personal skills necessary in the fast pace of our modern life is the ability to set boundaries around certain aspects of our lives. There is a set of boundaries around what we see as our private lives and what we see as our work lives. We all need to work - and that's fine - but the problem for the workaholic comes when he/she is unable to set the boundaries clearly between what is 'life' and what is work. That is why workaholism may not have anything at all to do with the characteristic of being hard-working. Chua says: "Many hard-working people can set the boundary. They work hard for the required time or task but then set the boundary and move to their private lives. For the workaholic this becomes much harder and 'work' and 'life' merge into one." one good example of setting boundaries is something I saw in a work-at-home life insurance agent I once knew.

The life insurance agent's rules

I once knew a life insurance agent who worked from home. This was certainly a setting where the work role and the life role could become merged into one. This man, however, was able to avoid that by setting a series of boundaries and rituals to differentiate his work from his personal life. For a start, he gave himself an office, a definite place to work within the house. It was a separate room and made to look like an office - not like a lounge room. Then he gave himself hours of work; he would not allow himself to go into the office at all on the weekend when other employees were not at work.

On weekdays he had to be in the office by 8.00am. Then he set some dress rules - he could not go into the office unless he was wearing business clothes and a tie. He had a separate telephone line and used an answer service when it was outside of work hours. He was definitely not available on a 24/7 basis. Then he focused on making himself efficient in the times when he was in the office. With the urgency to get things done in normal work hours his productivity improved and his sales went up.

Taking work home from the office

 Many Singapore workers face the same potential problem, because it seems to be more common these days for employees and managers to take work home from the office to complete it in the evening. In this situation the employee - although he/she may not actually be a home worker - faces the same danger as the life insurance agent who works from home. The Singapore office employee who takes work home runs the danger of merging his/her home and working life so that it all runs into one. This is not to say that the advice must be to avoid taking work home. The advice should be to think about the rules the life insurance agent set up. Set some boundaries when you take work home to differentiate what is work and what is life. The boundaries might include rules like only doing it once a week, or allowing a specified time on weekends to do some quiet catch up, or having a nominated place in the house to do the work, having dress rules and allocating specific work hours. Chua says: "The danger with taking work home is when it becomes a regular and sustained pattern with no boundaries."

'Kiasu' as a factor

In Singapore - as with other cultures in Asia - the factor of 'kiasu' can come into play. 'Kiasu' is the fear of making mistakes and, when taken to extremes, also involves an unreasonable fear that there will be catastrophic consequences if even simple mistakes are made. An example of catastrophic thinking in this case is that you will lose your job if you make just one mistake. In many Asian settings, with their highly developed work ethic, one form of 'kiasu' is the fear that co-workers will think you are incompetent if you make any mistakes. An overly developed sense of 'kiasu' can lead to poor work habits because the worker goes to extreme lengths to ensure perfection. Examples include checking and rechecking work many times over and over to guarantee it is correct. This results in a vast amount of unnecessary work and is a typical pattern into which the workaholic can fall. It is the level of unnecessary work, which makes the workaholic less productive.

The importance of leadership

 The solution to workaholism may be a field where leadership plays a role for the whole workforce in a company. If the senior management are all workaholics - and pride themselves on it - then the middle management are likely to follow the example. If the middle management become workaholics (and think this is normal), the other workers are also likely to be tainted by the problem. Soon the whole organisation develops a culture of workaholism, as opposed to a culture of working effectively. Leadership by example is required at all levels. The leader should show that the company values the achievement of defined goals and performance standards more than it values the mere process of working hard or for long periods.

Role of HR managers

The role of the HR manager in a company is pivotal in addressing the problem of workaholism. The HR manager is in a position to watch the performance of employees and to train other line managers and supervisors to watch for signs of workaholism. A good place to start is with those people in the company who are working very hard but not really getting a lot done. In this context the HR manager, working with other managers in the company, should ask the question: 'Why is this person working so hard but achieving so little?' Staff appraisal time may be an opportunity to raise the matter in a supportive and non-threatening way. Many workaholics find it impossible to identify their problem by themselves. They know something is wrong with their work-life balance, they know they are suffering work related stress - but they can't see the underlying problem. The answer to why some employees are working so hard and achieving so little may not necessarily be that they are workaholics. They may need skills training or maybe redeployment to a position which they are more suited. Regardless, workaholism is one of the causes. and HR managers need to be aware of this possibility. In the case of 'kiasu'-caused workaholism, the HR manager's role may be to look critically at workplace culture to see if the penalties for making small mistakes are too high. It would be better to create a situation where people can cross-check each other's work to find the errors. For this to be effective it needs an environment where there is no loss of face or penalty for making a simple error. A simple cross-checking system could save hundreds of hours of unnecessary work. The HR manager can be instrumental in creating a work environment where people are allowed to make mistakes.

Wider awareness

A fledgling program has been opened in Singapore - the Workplace Emotional Health Program, run by the Institute of Mental Health. A forum was recently held to increase awareness of how the program might help HR managers deal with issues of workplace stress, including workaholism. This may be a resource to help HR managers when they have identified a workaholism problem. It may also serve as a model for adoption in other Asian 'tiger' countries.


With all the interest that is taking place at the moment with the concept of the work-life balance, HR managers should view the concept of workaholism as a special case where people have got their work life balance completely off kilter. And again, the challenge may be for HR managers to look at themselves first in order to understand the dynamics that lead to workaholism. With this understanding they may be better equipped to reach out and help others.

Source: Human Capital Asia - GAI

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