Wednesday , July 24 2024

Overworking pushes young professionals to the brink


Just moments after waking from kidney stone surgery, Tuan Hung received a message from his team leader at work asking for help redesigning a client’s image.

Two days earlier, Hung, a 26-year-old content creator from Hanoi, had requested two days of sick leave for a hospital visit and procedure. Yet, while lying in his hospital bed, his phone buzzed incessantly with messages from his superiors, seeking his assistance.

“Just open your laptop and fix a few simple errors for me; it should only take a few minutes,” read one of many similar notes that came from Hung’s boss, regardless of the hour.

“The messages may sound like a polite request for help, but they are actually orders,” said Hung. “What they say will take a few minutes often stretches into hours.”

Hung admits that one of the advantages of working in the creative industry is the flexibility regarding working remotely, with minimal interaction with colleagues, and he still receives the benefits of having health insurance.

The drawbacks, however, are countless, he explained, citing late-night sessions due to clients in different time zones, and the fact that he has to address urgent issues for his boss at any time he’s called, day or night.

Even on weekends, he had to keep his laptop close by, without any extra pay. Whenever he travels with friends, he needs to choose locations with reliable phone reception. Besides his laptop, he always keeps his phone connected to the internet, ready to handle any emergency tasks.

“If I were not buying a house in installments, I would not have lasted this long,” Hung confessed.

Tuan Hung on a beach trip with friends, June 2024. Photo courtesy of Hung

Tuan Hung on a beach trip with friends, June 2024. Photo courtesy of Hung

On-call

Hung is among many who have complained about being required to be on-call around the clock. Topics like this are very popular threads and taglines among online forums.

At the end of June, a social media post about a young man receiving work requests while in the emergency room went viral, garnering over 500,000 views and thousands of comments. Many users shared similar experiences of having their evenings and weekends co-opted by their companies.

“When I signed my contract, it said ‘full-time’ was eight hours a day,” social media user Hoang Khoi commented. “After onboarding, I found out ‘full-time’ meant working 24/7, no rest.”

In response to a survey conducted by VnExpress in Oct. 2023 asking “How many hours do you typically work a day?” 60% said between 8-14 hours, while 9% of respondents said over 14 hours.

Dr. Do Minh Cuong, Deputy Director of the Vietnam Association of Business Culture Development, said unpaid overtime often results from company culture or managerial practices. Many employees do not fully understand their rights and fear negative evaluations or job loss if they refuse extra work.

Regardless of the form or reason, infringing on employees’ rest time is illegal and inhumane, Cuong emphasized.

Working 14-15 hours a day left Diem Huong, a 25-year-old residing in Ho Chi Minh City, physically and mentally exhausted.

Huong has been employed by a study abroad consulting firm in the city for three years. Beyond the standard eight-hour workday, she and her colleagues often have to hold online meetings with partners in Canada, Australia, and the U.S. in the middle of the night due to time zone differences.

Frequent overtime and weekend business trips are the norm for Huong. Several times a week, she sleeps at the office to maximize her time on the job and avoid hauling all her work documents home with her.

Once, she had to rush to the office at midnight to amend a client contract because the necessary documents were only accessible there. Constant after-hours work led her to carry her phone everywhere, even into the shower, and set a loud alarm for overnight calls.

In another VnExpress survey, when asked, “What are your causes of stress at work?” the top response (36%) was “Excessive work and overtime.” Other significant stressors included conflicts with bosses, colleagues disputes, poor working conditions, and excessive noise.

According to Dr. Nguyen Duc Loc, Director of the SocialLife Institute, burnout from being always available for the job more than eight hours a day has become quite common, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is a downside of the post-pandemic remote employment and multitasking trend,” he explained, adding that many companies have reduced staff, pushing more duties onto their remaining employees, or pressuring workers to increase productivity.

A 2021 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environment International indicated that those working more than 55 hours a week have a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to those working 35-40 hours a week.

In Vietnam, a study by the Institute of Mental Health at Bach Mai Hospital, revealed that 40,000 people commit suicide annually due to depression. While depression has many causes, experts highlight stress and overload in certain professions as significant factors.

Extended periods of being on-call left Hung sleep-deprived, relying on coffee or energy drinks to stay awake. During a routine health check late last year, he was diagnosed with hyperlipidemia, impaired kidney function, and cervical spondylosis. The constant late-night work calls even led him to experience auditory hallucinations. Several times in the middle of the night, he thought he heard his phone ringing with messages from his boss, only to find that the sounds were not real.

“I am sacrificing my youth to earn money,” Hung lamented. “But soon one day I will have to spend all that money to save my health.”

For Huong, high-intensity work disrupted her biological clock, causing hair loss and acute stomach pain. Despite her hometown being less than 200 kilometers from her workplace, she has only managed to visit her family once or twice a year. She has lost touch with her relatives, and most of her interactions with friends were online.

Balancing act

“But employees do not work overtime every single day, for 365 days a year,” said Doan Quan, a 35-year-old manager of an advertising company with over 50 employees in Hanoi. “It depends on the project.”

“If they finish early and the client approves quickly, they get to rest while waiting for the next job,” he explained. “However, if they proceed slowly or make mistakes, leading to multiple revisions, it naturally eats into their rest time.”

Quan also emphasized that he was always available to support his team. He argued that he does not just leave his staff struggling late alone.

To prevent employees from burnout and stress due to continuous overtime, Loc advised managers to balance employee well-being with productivity.

Harsh enforcement of high-productivity over short time periods may temporarily boost employees’ output, but its persistence can lead to employee resistance and high turnover, he explained.

Instead, managers should motivate and create a positive environment for employees, according to Loc.

Clear working hours should be established, and urgent tasks should be distinguished from those that can wait. During recruitment, job descriptions should be detailed to avoid surprises for new hires.

After five years of continuous overtime at a foreign joint venture in Ho Chi Minh City, Truc My quit her VND18-million monthly salary job to return to her hometown. Now earning VND6 million a month, the 30-year-old feels the move has been “worth it” for the weekends off and no overtime.

“Since graduating, until now, I had only dreamed of getting a full eight hours of sleep and not being disturbed by work calls at midnight,” said My.

“My new job makes me happy and content, rather than just making money but jeopardizing my health.”

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