It’s 9.30pm, and Lam Wai Leong has been traveling for an hour and a half. As he steps onto the bus at Tai Po market, he is completing the fifth out of his six–staged commute home. Four different MTR rides, a bus, and then a 10-minute walk make up his 90-minute journey, one way.
“The worst part is that I can’t even sleep while I travel, because I have to keep changing trains. It would be better if it was just one bus ride,” Lam, an office manager, said. “I’m tired all the time. If I didn’t have to travel so much I would sleep more, so I would be more relaxed and less stressed at work.”
A sleep-deprived workforce is estimated to cost the Hong Kong economy US$8bn every year, according to a study by Rand Corporation. Lam is one of the staggering 92% of the local working population who is deprived of quality sleep. His nightly six hours of sleep are below the recommended eight hours for an adult, and although he knows he should sleep more, he, like the majority of the Hong Kong workforce, is unable to find a solution.
Health experts agree that sleep is one of the most effective insurance policies against obesity, stress and disease. It’s vital for young people’s development and academic success. It helps us eat better, work smarter, and live longer. But Hong Kong, a city obsessed with high productivity, does not encourage its residents to sleep more.
“It’s partly Chinese culture,” said Lam. “The media shows very successful people who only sleep four or five hours per night. And if we hear someone sleeps for nine hours, we think they’re lazy.”
“Hong Kong society negatively reinforces a lack of sleep because our work culture tells people they shouldn’t leave the office before others,” said Cherry Ho, who travelled from Yuen Long to Sai Ying Pun for her marketing job. She says her work is negatively affected by her lack of sleep. “When I am so tired, it takes me longer to process information and I may not think as clearly when reacting to emergencies,” she said.
Hong Kong’s workforce is one of the most overworked in the world, with an average of 2,296 hours worked per person per year, compared to other developed nations such as Germany, whose average is 1,363 hours per person per year, according to 2016 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But are Hong Kong’s long work hours more productive? According to the World Bank’s GNP comparisons, they are not. Hong Kong earns US$41,000 per capita, whereas Germany earns US$45,790 and works almost half of the hours that Hong Kong does. Sleep-deprivation may be one of the reasons that Hong Kong works longer but less productively than other developed nations.
“We live in a city that wants higher and higher productivity per employee, but if their sleep is suffering, there’s no way we can achieve this,” says Dr. Lincoln Lau who is from Hong Kong and is now an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He says sleep deprivation is not just economically a problem, but it is now a huge public health epidemic. “It’s on a similar level to obesity, smoking and pollution. But the problem is, it’s much harder to study, because people aren’t really able to report accurately how much and what quality of sleep they’re getting.”
Long commutes are not the only reason for sleep deprivation in Hong Kong. Both adults and children are being kept awake by the lure of online games, movies and social networks. And even for those who do try to get the elusive eight-hours, crowded homes mean that people’s sleep is often disturbed; with children being kept awake by adults or older siblings, and those living in subdivided flats unable to shut out noise from their neighbours.
The problem in Hong Kong starts early, with even elementary aged children not getting enough sleep, and gets worse during high school. A study published by the University of Hong Kong shows 12 year olds get an average of 7.5 hours sleep, while final year high school students only get 6.5 hours on school nights.
“The trouble is that there is not a big enough incentive for children to get more sleep,” says Lau. “If they sleep more, they will probably do better in school and eventually maybe get a higher paying job. But most young people don’t think that far into the future. The incentive to stay up late, watching films or gaming, is much more powerful than the incentive to get more sleep.”
So how should Hong Kong’s schools, employers and government encourage more sleep? It is, after all, in their interests – a well-rested population is more productive, loses less work days due to illness, attains higher academically and suffers less mental illness. In the Harvard Business Review, Dr Charles Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that “encouraging a culture of sleepless machismo is worse than nonsensical; it is downright dangerous, and the antithesis of intelligent management.”
In response, high profile companies in the United States such as Uber, JP Morgan Chase and Aetna, have taken measures internally to try to incentivise sleep among their employees, giving financial rewards to those who can prove they have had consistently good sleep, and providing “sleep coaching” for employees.
There are no well-known Hong Kong companies who have taken similar steps. But Charles Caldwell, head of HR at English Schools Foundation is sceptical about company policy being the answer. “People need to be responsible for their own well-being. Transferring responsibility to a company or its incentive programs will lead to problems elsewhere. Neuroscience has already proven that incentive programs have diminishing returns… why muddy the waters with such a critical issue as sleep?”
Education is often seen as the answer to many public health problems. But a Hong Kong trial of educating children on healthy sleep practices was found to make no improvement in the amount of sleep those children were getting. With Google Hong Kong’s nap rooms, and several napping spaces such as Chillazy and Nap Lounge launching in Hong Kong, napping may be one way that Hong Kong residents catch up on sleep.
But Dr. Lincoln Lau says the answer is most likely financial “The most effective method in Hong Kong to curb smoking was to double the tax on cigarettes. And in other countries, food taxes and bans have helped obesity to drop. I guess someone needs to figure out a way to tax sleep deprivation!”