Everyone pays the price for workplace stress


Prof. SIU Oi-ling


It has become increasingly accepted that high levels of work stress are likely to have damaging effects on any employee’s physical, psychological and social well-being. Muscle pain, intestinal illness, insomnia and plain unhappiness are just some of the symptoms which can directly afflict individuals, but the negative effects also often spill over into their home life, adversely affecting relationships within the family.


However, despite this growing awareness, over the past 15 years the proportion of workers in Hong Kong experiencing high degrees of stress has remained, fairly consistently, somewhere above 30 percent. In other words, at epidemic levels.


Having examined the harm inflicted on individuals in her 2005 study, Professor Siu Oi-ling, ex-Head of Lingnan’s Department of Applied Psychology and current Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, has recently completed another project commissioned by the Occupational Safety & Health Council (OSHC), this time to examine the economic cost of occupational stress to Hong Kong.


In her latest research, Professor Siu used both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Before the surveys were conducted, focus group interviews were used to discover the sources and effects of the stress workers were subject to, and afterwards the group members gave their views on the results.


Professor Siu found that the cost of work stress to Hongkongers and their economy, due to absenteeism, presenteeism and medical bills, amounts to billions of Hong Kong dollars annually. The greatest stressors were identified as job insecurity and organisational constraints.


Because of the excessively long hours they work, those employed in the SAR’s education, construction and transportation sectors are often under the greatest pressure. They routinely put in 60-80 hour weeks, far longer than the 38-40 hours cited as optimal by the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.


Professor Siu has identified three levels of stress management solutions to this range of problems. First is primary intervention by employers, through the removal of causes, such as long working hours or sources of interpersonal conflict. The second involves improving employees’ own stress management skills via, for example, time management or mindfulness training. The third level targets those who are already stressed and who may need to see a counsellor or take time off to recover.


Beyond the maintenance of a positive mindset, and the resolve to resist any cultural pressure to go along with unreasonable demands, Professor Siu believes that the best way for a worker to tackle stress is through an effective coping strategy. She recommends two such methods in particular. Positive-active coping requires the individual to first reflect on what’s happening and then focus on developing their capacity for time-management and forward planning to ease pressures. The second method is through engaging in a hobby, or physical exercise, that helps them to ‘decompress’.


Echoing the recommendations she made in a 2007 research report, Professor Siu would also like to see the government encourage more family-friendly employment policies and practices. Unlike some other developed economies, Hong Kong lacks legislation to promote job-sharing, part-time working, flexi-time, or teleworking. These sorts of options and facilities, as seen in the US and the UK, are still only offered at the discretion of individual companies.


To know more about Prof. SIU Oi-ling research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.