Time for employers to take action on excessive working hours
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John van der Luit-Drummond is editor of International Employment Lawyer

Extreme, brutal, gruelling, and exhausting. Just some of the ways China’s so-called “996” work culture has been described by workers and market observers in recent days. However, for Alibaba founder Jack Ma and other Chinese employers, the “blessing” of a culture that rewarded staff for toiling from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, and at the expense of their health and families, may soon – and hopefully – be a distant memory. But what about the rest of the world?

Across the East China Sea, a recent investigation into 24,000 Japanese workplaces found more than one-third contained employees working more than 80-hour weeks in violation of the country’s overtime laws. As with China, the shocking findings raise serious questions about the long-term welfare of Japan’s workforce. Indeed, so common is it for Japanese employees to work themselves to death that the country has coined a term for the phenomenon – “Karoshi”. 

But expectations that employees will work excessive hours is not only endemic to China or Japan. It is, in fact, an increasingly worldwide problem. The Better Life Index finds that 11% of employees in OECD countries work 50 hours or more each week.

With 33% of its workforce subject to longer working hours, Turkey has the larger proportion of workers arguably working to excess, followed by Mexico (29%), Colombia (27%), and South Korea (25%).

Here in the UK, 12% of employees are found to work longer than average hours, meanwhile, across the pond, 11% of US workers can be found to struggle with their work-life balance. 

Why is this important? Because, for employers, overworked staff are a major liability issue. Evidence suggests that long working hours can impair personal health, jeopardise safety, and increase stress, leading to injury, disease, or death.

A recent study from the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) found that working 55 hours or more per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.

Meanwhile, suicides related to workplace issues are also on the rise, according to a variety of studies, including in the US, Australia, France, India, and Taiwan.

And, yes, the covid-19 pandemic has certainly made matters worse as an increase in remote and teleworking blurs the boundaries between home and work life. Even employers compliant with local working time legislation may unwittingly still find themselves at risk if they fail to ensure their staff are not working themselves into early graves.

“Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” says Dr Maria Neira, director in the department of environment, climate change, and health at the WHO. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers, and employees wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.”

So, as China’s authorities crackdown on corporates overworking their employees, global employers should reflect on their own working time policies, procedures, and – importantly – their corporate culture before it is too late.