Workers in the largest Asian cities spend more time at work than just about anyone else globally. However, this may be costing companies money and pushing workers away from some of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
According to the International Labour Organization, most countries in Asia have a 48-hour working week, but almost a third of the countries in the region do not have a regulated maximum of hours of work. Another third put the weekly limit at 60 hours of work.
Japan introduced standard working hours of eight hours per day and 40 hours per week, as early as 1994.
South Korea also introduced a 40-hour workweek in 2003, but that has rarely been followed. Also, the law did not count weekends, which meant employees could put in more hours then and on holidays.
Last September, South Korea cut the maximum number of hours that can be worked per week to 52, down from 68.
In Singapore, the working hours should not exceed eight per day or 44 per week.
Hours in Europe
That’s much longer than countries like France and Germany, which has a 35-hour workweek and, since last month, a new rule that discourages workers in the digital and communications industries from accessing work-related e-mail or notifications after office hours, and also discourages employers from pressuring them to do so. Sweden is considering a 30-hour workweek.
Average workweeks in most developed economies have generally been dropping.
Across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries (which include Japan, South Korea and Australia), the average worker put in 1,765 hours of work in 2012, compared to 1,844 hours in 2000.
Still, the average employee in Asia works 2,154 hours per year, 13 percent higher than the global average of 1,915 hours, according to the UBS Prices and Earnings report from 2012 that the investment bank publishes every three years.
But despite the long hours, Asian workers are not necessarily much more productive.
In terms of GDP per hours of work, the most productive workers in the world are in the United States, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden and Australia, according to The Conference Board, a global business membership and research association.
Among the five cities in the world with the longest working hours, three are in Asia. Hong Kong ranked third among the 72 cities surveyed, with the average worker spending 2,296 hours per year at their job.
In Bangkok, workers spend 2,312 hours at work every year and in Seoul 2,308. In Shanghai, the average work year is 1,967 hours and in Tokyo it is 2,012 hours.
In New York, the average employee works 2,062 hours in any given year and 2,375 in Mexico City, which gives it the honor of having the longest work hours in the world. In Paris, the average worker spends just 1,558 hours at work.
Working long hours, employees get burned out quickly and are more likely to change jobs faster. This creates a problem for companies that have a difficult time retaining staff. Higher turnover translates into higher costs.
In general, companies are not ready to deal with the challenges of retaining staff, according to another survey by Deloitte, an accounting and consulting firm.
In its Global Human Capital Trends 2014, the firm found that leadership, retention and engagement are key priorities for companies around the world, but few are prepared for them.
And in the Asia Pacific, where the hours are the longest and retention the biggest problem, dealing with the issue was a priority for 12 percent fewer respondents. Across the region, companies said they needed to improve the capabilities of their workforces.
CPA Australia’s survey showed half of respondents work 41 to 50 hours per week and 40 percent work more than 51 hours per week. One in five people work more than 61 hours per week.
Despite the shifting focus from employees to remedy the situation, work life balance issues will remain. Executives must treat the root cause of high turnover, namely work life balance, before retention becomes a major issue for their company.