OPINION20 October 2011

What’s the Mandarin for ‘work/life balance'?


John Wigglesworth and Wynne Cheng examine the culture of long-working hours in the North Asian research industry.


When he was CEO of Goldman Sachs, Hank Paulson reportedly had a notice sitting on his desk that read “If you aren’t in on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday”. The message was intended to make the point that it would take a seven-day commitment to keep up with his legendary work rate. Yet he was well-rewarded. Paulson’s annual compensation including Goldman Sachs stock was around US $16m – well over $40,000 a day.

Salaries for market research professionals tend to be a little lower than that. But when it comes to working hours, researchers in Asia could give investment bankers a run for their money. Long hours are most pronounced in North Asia – visit the offices of any agency in China, Hong Kong or South Korea late into the evening and the majority of staff will still be at their desks. All-nighters are commonplace. Work/life balance is non-existent. Why?

Competition between staff is an important factor. Employees tend to be very competitive and less united, and this is driven by two things: money and status. If they work hard and get noticed, perhaps they will earn a quicker promotion and salary increase than their peers. A faster progression in one’s career equates to a more respectable social status.

A combination of sustained macroeconomic growth and strong cultural influences means that long working hours in North Asia are just a part of life, accepted by almost everyone in the research industry.

Hierarchy is also an important feature of the workplace. In the UK, someone who is working extremely long hours over an extended period may well push back and point out to their line-manager that their workload is unfair and unsustainable. In North Asia, there is an innate respect (even fear) of someone more senior or more powerful than yourself. Employees are thus unlikely to push back, or question whether their long working hours are a function of poor resource planning, understaffing or weak management.

Another cultural nuance is that the wellbeing of the company is often placed above considerations for employees – whatever you do should contribute to a better future for the company. This works to foster a higher sense of responsibility and – following on from that – the relegation of personal interests below the interests of the company. High-level managers – who are role models for more junior staff – will often lead by example, including setting a very high bar in terms of working hours.

While culture certainly explains a very large part of the long hours phenomenon, there are other factors too. Growth in Asia has remained high in recent years, and for the research industry this has resulted in a big increase in research spend as major consumer goods companies fight for market share. With an already tight labour pool, this has put a lot of strain on agencies – and their staff – as they try and service an ever-increasing project workload. Recruitment cannot keep pace with growth; most agencies openly admit they are under-resourced.

Additionally, these clients (especially in the FMCG and healthcare sectors) have been quite aggressively expanding their own in-house research teams. More often than not they will cherry-pick the top talent from their research agency vendors. The MD of one well-known agency in Shanghai complained that his biggest client had poached half-a-dozen of his team in a six month period, while a contractual agreement with the multi-national corporation prohibited his agency from taking staff from them.

A combination of sustained macroeconomic growth and strong cultural influences means that long working hours in North Asia are just a part of life, accepted by almost everyone in the research industry. And it’s not going to change any time soon. Nonetheless, industry colleagues in Europe or the US may take the view that working fourteen hour days is a pretty big mistake for a bunch of smart people to make.

John Wigglesworth is a former GfK director and Wynne Cheng a former project manager for TNS Custom Research in China. Both now work for Asia Research Recruitment in Singapore.