Hong Kong is a great place to be an expat, offering promising career prospects, rich local culture, a high standard of living, and much more. In many ways, it’s one of the best places in the world to be an expat. However, one particular area where Hong Kong seems to fall behind is in the work-life balance it allows people to achieve.In 2015 the HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey reported that although a lot of Hong Kong expats say that they’re happy with their financial compensation, the quality of education, the culture, and the cuisine, an unusually high proportion of them say that they had a better work-life balance in their home country. The global average is 25%, but in Hong Kong, 45% of respondents felt this way.
Other research, while not focused on expats, reported similar findings. In a report by global workplace provider Regus, two-thirds of the professionals in Hong Kong said that they would like to achieve a better work-life balance: a proportion that’s higher than the global average and also higher than most other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Another Regus report showed that the number of people working overtime in Hong Kong, especially on Mondays, is higher than the global average. A report by recruitment firm Randstad also said that Hong Kong workers had the worst work-life balance in the region. It seems that things weren’t always this way – according to a report commissioned by Community Business, a Hong Kong-based non-profit that tries to foster corporate social responsibility, 62 per cent of Hong Kong workers felt that their work-life balance had deteriorated over the last 10 years.
Clearly then, the verdict is in: Hong Kong may be doing many things right, but when it comes to balancing work and personal life, many Hong Kong businesses seem to be getting it wrong. While there’s a limit on how much you can do to take control of your personal life when you’re working for a company that doesn’t place as much value on it as you’d like, there are always a few things you can do to improve the situation. Here’s a quick guide to finding a better work-life balance in Hong Kong.
Define your ideal balance
It’s important to first get your basics in place. We’re essentially talking about your outlook and your approach to life here. Specific strategies and actions are important – and we’ll get to them – but it’ll be difficult to implement any of them if you’re not looking at your situation in a way that’s realistic and helpful. A lot of people want a work-life balance, but they haven’t really thought about what that means. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll just be stuck with a vague and constant sense of dissatisfaction and frustration.
Realize that there is no universal ratio that works for everyone. Figure out how much time you need to spend at work, and how much time you need for everything else, including ‘me-time’, family time, time for socializing, and so on. Then figure out how you can push things around a little at a time in order to achieve this – you can’t go directly from a 55-hour work week to a 40-hour work week, but you can try to cut it down gradually, week by week, or even month by month, until you’ve achieved your target.
Set your own priorities
Part of getting your basics right is realizing that you can’t do everything and that you need to choose. At work, figure out what really requires your attention, whether because it’s urgent, it requires your skills, or for any other reason. Schedule some things for later, delegate what you can, and be okay with ignoring other things. In your personal life, don’t let your time be taken up by activities that you don’t find productive or satisfying. If you need alone time or time for your hobbies, don’t attend parties simply because you feel obliged to do so. Figure out what’s non-negotiable and what you can easily do without.
For one person, a session at the gym may be non-negotiable, and for another person, it may be a session of baking over the weekend. Don’t be afraid to prioritize people either – there simply isn’t the time in life to socialise with everyone you know. Make time for those who are most important to you, and accept that there may be others whom you see less often.
Communicate with people
A major reason why many people find themselves unhappy with their work-life balance is that they can’t – or won’t – communicate their desires, expectations, and decisions to the people around them. Without clear communication, you will be left dealing with constant demands and expectations. It’s important to talk to your boss and your colleagues about what you can and can’t do, about how they can help you do your job more effectively and efficiently, what you expect from them and from the organization, and so on.
Needless to say, communication at home is also important. Talking clearly and openly to your partner can help both of you to be supportive of each other and share responsibilities efficiently, keeping either one of you from spending all your non-work time running the house. In both situations, some things may need to be discussed repeatedly before you see results, but it’s important to persevere and be patient.
Practice saying no
There isn’t much point prioritizing and communicating if you can’t say no to people when it comes to it. You’ll be surprised at how easily many people accept a no when it’s stated politely but firmly. However, it’s also important to do this without feeling guilty. You’ve already figured out what your priorities are – now, if something’s at the bottom of your list, accept that it’s not important to you, say no, and move on.
Unplug when you’re not at the office
Technology is great, and helps us all to be more efficient, but it also sucks away a lot of our time, and often not in a very productive manner. Once you’ve left the office, make it a habit to not check your work mail, to turn off work-related notifications on your phone, and to avoid having work conversations. It’s important to preserve the sanctity of personal time, perhaps even by switching off your phone sometimes. In certain jobs, this can be difficult to implement. However, try to limit your after-work availability to absolute emergencies. Most things can easily wait until morning; for the rest, you could have something like a three-call rule – if someone from work calls you three times, it’s probably urgent, so answer it. However, mails, messages, and single calls can wait for tomorrow.
Don’t obsess over perfection
For many people, a huge impediment to achieving a satisfactory work-life balance is an obsession with getting everything perfect. This is a recipe for disaster, and a reason why so many are so stressed out. Remember that for some things, it’s enough to just get them done. If you absolutely must be a perfectionist, limit it to one or two things that are really important to you.
Cut down the commute
A commute to work can be a massive drain on your time, and a big disruptor of your work-life balance. Hong Kong has the advantage of a great transport system and rents being more or less the same everywhere. People all over the world often try to save money by living in a location where the rents are relatively low, and commuting to work. In Hong Kong however, these savings usually don’t amount to much, so it’s worth considering whether it’s really worth the daily commute. For most residents, it’s possible to live within walking distance of their offices without paying substantially more in rent, and sometimes without paying any more at all.
Try to work flexibly
Not every organization is open to the concept, but gradually, flexibility at the workplace is gaining in popularity. This mainly involves the ability to set your own work timings, and to work from home whenever possible. However, you can discuss with your organization whatever setup you think will work for you. Just remember that sudden and drastic changes are unlikely to be okayed, so take things slowly. If they need convincing, you can also ask for a short trial period of a month or two. Once they realize that your work isn’t being negatively affected – and that you are, in all probability, even more productive – they’ll almost certainly be willing to implement the setup on a long-term basis.
Make the time to exercise
It may seem like a crazy suggestion to add something to your life when you’re trying to free up time. However, research shows that apart from the health benefits of regular exercise, it also makes you less stressed, and more alert and productive. Many people also eventually find that it’s a very satisfying and enjoyable activity. It doesn’t need to be going to the gym – swimming, yoga, dance, or a sport will do. Just be sure to start with something you can manage, in terms of time, your physical ability, and your interests. Jumping straight into hour-long sessions, six days a week, of an activity you loathe will be setting yourself up for failure.
If all else fails, switch jobs
If you’ve implemented the suggestions above and a work-life balance still isn’t forthcoming, it may be time to look for a new position. The fact is that the environment in an organization is a huge factor in defining the work-life balance of its employees. Many organizations fail to properly plan or prepare their projects, or to provide adequate support for expat employees in order to help them relocate and settle into their new location. Many fail to even recognize that employees have personal lives, and have no policies to ensure a work-life balance.
If talking to your seniors and trying to clearly define and limit your responsibilities and work hours is unsuccessful despite repeated attempts, perhaps it’s time to move to a new organization. As more and more employees start to demand a better work-life balance, some employers are beginning to listen, and hopefully, you’ll be able to find them. When looking for a new job, note that most people who complain about being overworked tend to work for either local, Hong Kong-based companies or mainland Chinese companies. The work culture in international companies is generally different, and gives you a better chance at finding balance.
Have you achieved a good work-life balance? How did you do it? Let us know in the comments!