Asia, we are often told, is ageing so rapidly that it may not have much time to enjoy its economic miracle before it is saddled with the costs of caring for its elderly. However, emerging data suggest the region also risks being derailed by another looming problem — the ill health of its workforce.
“Poor dietary choices and sedentary lifestyles are leading the countries of Asia and the Pacific into a future of lower productivity and ballooning public healthcare costs,” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned in October. Now in its third year, the AIA Vitality Healthiest Workplace survey has expanded to cover the health and wellbeing of more than 26,000 employees in the Asia-Pacific region. It reveals alarmingly high levels of mental and physical ill health.
The research shows employees work significantly longer hours than their counterparts in the UK and Australia but are far less productive, take considerably more time off work because of sickness and score higher on presenteeism — when someone turns up to work, but is too ill or mentally distracted to perform effectively.
In Hong Kong, which had the worst outcomes across the six countries and territories surveyed, almost 46 per cent of employees worked more than 50 hours per week, but the average amount of productive time lost per year amounted to 77.4 days. In the UK by contrast, only 12.5 per cent of employees worked more than 50 hours a week and employees lost only 58 days of productive time per year.
“I was surprised when I first got the data back three years ago and remain so about how bad Hong Kong’s metrics were,” says Christian van Stolk, executive vice-president of Rand Europe, which conducted the research.
Samson Tse, who runs a masters programme in counselling at the University of Hong Kong and has co-authored a paper on the health of Hong Kong employees, says the AIA Vitality findings do not surprise him. “Employees in Hong Kong suffer from a lack of physical and mental space. There is little job security, and sick workplace cultures, transmitted from stressed bosses, are commonplace.”
Hong Kong is not the only area of Asia-Pacific that is a cause for concern. Van Stolk says he is worried about what the data reveals about the “pressure cooker” in which workers in Asia operate. He says the research reveals daily lives characterised by poor sleep, lack of control at work, lack of opportunity to take breaks, general stress and a high degree of bullying.
Workers across the region reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress — led by Hong Kong at 61.1 per cent, followed by Malaysia at 56.7 per cent, Thailand at 53 per cent and Sri Lanka at 42.7 per cent. Sri Lanka also reported the highest levels of workplace bullying. The figures compare with a much lower 35.1 per cent reporting ill health as a result of stress at work in the UK.
Employees across Asia reported poor lifestyle choices in relation to diet and exercise, though countries in the region have relatively low proportions of people who smoked or drank too much. Nearly 85 per cent of employees in Hong Kong and Malaysia ate fewer than five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
These countries also had the highest proportion of employees who were physically inactive. Australian workers had the best diet, though still with just under half reporting they ate fewer than five portions of fruit and vegetables each day; they were also the most physically active of the countries surveyed.
Employers can make a difference, van Stolk believes. “Typically, we always say that a poorly performing organisation can reduce productivity loss by about 40 per cent. This is mostly through taking a holistic approach and changing the culture as well as interventions in the workplace.”