Thursday, September 19

Are young employees being worked to the grave?

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SOMETIME last December, a 27-year-old Indonesian copywriter tweeted “worked to death” before she collapsed, slipped into a coma and passed away a day after that.

While the official cause of death was not made known, it is believed that her untimely death was caused by a combination of being overworked and excessive consumption of energy drinks, which she used to get her through her work.

“Worked to death” cases have been making headlines around the world over the past few years. These cases have been on the rise since advancements in mobile technology have made it almost impossible to stay away from work, even when one is away from the office.

A global survey by employment agency Regus found that Malaysians are generally overworked. This may be hard to believe, but based on the survey, 15 per cent of Malaysians work more than 11 hours a day. This is higher in relation to the global 10 per cent of employees who put in more than eight hours a day.

Although the Employment Act states that the maximum number of working hours for a person should not exceed 10 hours a day and 48 hours a week, many young employees today will tell you that their jobs take up more than the work hours laid out in the Act.

These days, there is something called digital working time, which refers to time spent responding to work matters through email, Internet or mobile connectivity beyond formal working hours.

It has now become an unspoken doctrine in the modern working world so as not to be seen as lazy or insubordinate for not responding to work-related matters beyond the normal working hours.

Competition and ambition have also made young employees feel that they must constantly be at the service of their companies or organisations, particularly with the technology of mobile connectivity these days.

“Hey I am taking the day off, if there’s anything, just Whatsapp me.” How many times have we heard young employees say that?

Or how many times have we heard employers utter the words: “Make sure you check your email when you are away.” This is usually in response to their employee going on leave.

The credo that no one is indispensable is also quietly being driven into the minds of young employees, and they become even more inclined to carry their work in the palm of their hands wherever they go.

But at what price to the employees? Burnout? Health problems? Strained family relations? Death?

Health statistics show that many Malaysians who suffer from depression, stress, cardiac problems and anxiety these days are from the 20 to 40 plus age group. Back in the day, these health problems were known as ‘old people’s problems’.

What about the price that the companies and organisations will eventually have to pay? Demotivated staff? Drop in productivity? Accidents? High turnover rates?

Employers often tell their employees that time management is crucial and it is the responsibility of employees to manage their own time. While this is true, the employer too has a role to play in facilitating employees’ time management.

An occasional weekend spent at work and that occasional email after working hours is acceptable, but a line must be drawn when employers use technology to encroach into their employees’ private lives.

Realising that some companies are over-utilising technology to keep their employees on their toes, France has now made it illegal for digital and consultancy sector employees to respond to work related emails after 6pm on a work day.

Employees in these sectors are ordered to switch off their professional smartphones and must not be pressured to look at work related emails and documents on their tablets or computers from 6pm. France also forbids shifts between 9pm and 6am, except if the nature of the work is socially useful or plays an important role in the economy.

According to Michel de la Force, chairman of the General Confederation of Managers of France, extra work in exceptional circumstances is admissible, but employers and employees must always come back to what is normal. He defines normal as “to unplug and stop being permanently at work”.

Several European countries and companies are now considering the rule of ‘unplugging’ on the basis that after six hours, employees become tired and productivity will decline, even if they are pushed to continue working.

While a law to ensure employees in Malaysia ‘unplug’ from work remains only a dream for some, there are measures that employees and employers alike can take to ensure everyone achieves a healthy work-life balance.

A close friend, who is a manager in a private company, practices what she calls  ‘self-unplugging’ between 7pm and 7am, and on most weekends.

“I want to retain my health and sanity for my loved ones, because at the end the day, those who bury me will be my family, not the company I work for. Although it is not a company policy, I encourage the same for my staff. By doing this, I notice they come back to the office refreshed, alert, motivated and enjoy the work that they do,” she said.

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