Hong Kong’s Obsession with Productivity

By Hayley Yeung
Published on April 25th, 2021

Let’s face it. You’ve probably got a plethora of deadlines, unfinished work all piling one on top of the other, and you’re somewhat lacking the motivation to complete any of it. The word productivity should not come to mind. As a society, we’re completely obsessed with productivity, from Youtube Videos (Ali Abdaal anyone?) to full-length articles in major newspapers dedicated to productivity - take this title from Forbes ‘9 Habits of Productive People’ - we just can’t seem to escape the idea of being productive.

Here’s the thing - what does it really mean to be productive?

The word itself comes from Latin roots with the Medieval Latin word ‘productivus’ first used in 1610, which quite literally meant being ‘fit for production’, a nod to our industrialist roots. The term we more commonly use today, productivity, wasn’t introduced until 1899 and even then was used in the more economic sense, being defined as ‘the rate of output per unit. Even now, productivity is an economic term defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs.

Nonetheless, a more common student-orientated definition seems to be something along the lines of achieving desired results or simply the amount of time spent working, an activity we deem productive. Famed self-help coach Tony Robbins defines productivity as ‘getting the results you want with less time and effort’. So, it’s safe to say in this contemporary day and age; we directly correlate productivity with results and efficiency.

In Hong Kong, our long-standing love affair with productivity has translated to over-long work weeks, with an average of one in five Hong Kongers working 11 hours a day. Students are far from exempt, studying for an average of 62 hours per week, this totals out to 5 hours of extra time devoted to studying outside of mandatory 6-hour school days. In a survey published by the HKFYG in 2013, time spent on private tutoring rose significantly between 2009 and 2012, from 3.06 to nearly 5 hours per week. This highlights the reality that many students not only study outside of the required classroom hours but also attend tutorial lessons to further bolster their grades. With the ever-growing Hong Kong tutorial industry worth 1.6 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year alone, I doubt any of us are surprised.

Let’s talk about what this means for us.

Growing up in this environment, most of us are in, if not well aware of the ‘rat race’, and it’s undeniable that this obsession we have with productivity may just be one of the largest causes of mental health issues in Hong Kong. An estimated 1 in 4 workers suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety, while for students, an overwhelming 51.5%of secondary students showcase signs of depression. Now, it’s easy for us to say ‘de-stress’, ‘take a break’ or even ‘why don’t you try yoga?’, but the reality is, most of us are in too deep to even know where to begin. In a society where productivity and results are heralded as one of the most important aspects of life, it’s difficult to see things any other way.

With time and conscious effort, we can stop looking at things in black and white and begin to see that there is more to life than grades, achievements, career advancement and break away from our notions of productivity. Needing help or time for yourself is nothing to be ashamed of. You’re always going to have that little voice in your head telling you to work, or that feeling of despair when you feel ‘unproductive’, but the most we can hope for is that acknowledging just how unhealthy our obsession with productivity is may just be our first step in finding that work-life balance that seems more precious than gold.

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