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As anyone who has lived and worked in Hong Kong will attest, stress is almost a permanent condition for its inhabitants. Our city is a major financial hub, employing thousands of banking, corporate, teaching and aviation professionals, and as the regional headquarters for a lot of international organisations, the opportunities and rewards can be very attractive.
But office life in the SAR has never been more stressful, according to a recent survey by global workplace provider, Regus. Over half of the workforce said they are closer to burning out than they were five years ago, and a lack of manpower is the top trigger for workplace stress. The survey canvassed 22,000 professionals in more than 100 countries.
Coping with the fast-paced working environment is worn as a badge of honour by many busy parents, and the ability to make a lot of money and pay not a lot of tax is tempting for those looking to provide for their family’s future. But when it comes to achieving a balance between work and family, as well as looking after the family’s wellbeing, stress-busting exercise is often the first casualty of the busy lifestyle.
“Hong Kong employers have a knack for burning you out,” says John Ryder, aviation professional and airline captain. “I’ve seen so many guys, in all industries, rationalise that their job provides for the family and will set them up for a good life. But if there is no family left, then what’s the point?
“As with any job where Dad is away for days and sometimes weeks at a time, there needs to be a balance,” says Ryder. “When you do come back from days away with little or no contact with the family, there are always social functions to attend. This only adds to pressure on the family and, for some, can lead to separation.”
With over 26 years of experience in Hong Kong and Scotland, Harvard-trained Dr Susan Jamieson is one of Hong Kong’s most experienced family doctors, and she has a wealth of knowledge in the areas commonly affecting our lives in this busy city, especially in the area of stress.
“I have discovered a lot about stress management from the rock stars I have been lucky enough to treat. Mick Jagger or Elton John and his children travel constantly and this can be stressful,” says Jamieson. “Hong Kong people are not very different. They also travel, are away from home for long periods, live in hotels, deal with jet lag and can be isolated from family and friends. Hong Kong has always been a stressful city to live in. There are the long working hours, incessant deadlines, as well as the hard-driving perfectionism in providing a service for money. On top of that, we’ve got to deal with the background stresses of noise and pollution.”
Going for a drink is a popular stress management strategy amongst expatriate dads, but is having a beer with your mates the best thing to do?
“The temptation to go to a bar after work to try to tune out is always there in Hong Kong,” says Rob Eadon, banking executive and father of three. “But I don’t see this as a sustainable option so I only do it on special occasions.”
The obvious health risks aside, for some occupations all-too-regular beers with colleagues is just not an option.
“There is a lot riding on the health and wellbeing of a pilot,” says Ryder. “Social drinking is part of our culture, especially in Hong Kong, however medicating with alcohol tends to lead to dependency and there is no place for that in our industry. I focus more on reading the paper, listening to music, brewing beer and hiking. Not all at the same time, however. Also, now that the warmer months are upon us, there will be numerous junk trips and days at the beach to help the mind and body relax.”
Don’t stop moving
One of the best forms of stress relief is exercise. It boosts your feel-good endorphins and distracts you from the stresses of everyday life, not to mention its weight loss benefits.
“I find when I do get to the gym or out for a run, and get through a decent workout, I feel so much more relaxed and able to manage the stress,” says John Fogarty, banking executive and father of two.
But time-poor Hong Kong dads can often find it hard to find the time to exercise. They are in the office early in the morning and don’t get home until it is dark, leaving little time to escape for some physical activity.
“I’ve always worked in fairly stressful roles and have had to do some crazy hours sometimes,” says Fogarty. “Getting out to do some worthwhile exercise is certainly getting harder, but I still try to get out occasionally.”
Access to exercise facilities in Hong Kong is also a challenge. The hot, humid days, pollution and heavy traffic aren’t conducive to active, outdoor sports.
“Before I moved to Hong Kong I was cycling a minimum of five mornings every week and competing at a relatively high level,” says Rob Eadon. “It’s just too dangerous to do that in Hong Kong, so I’ve had to find other activities to work out some of the stress.”
Road cycling and gyms aren’t for everyone, but there are still a lot of other options for getting some exercise here.
“I’m not one for the gym so I try to get out for a short run at least twice during the week or do some weights, and at the weekends tend to go for a two- or three-hour hike or trail run in the mountains,” says Eadon. “I’m able to completely zone out when on the side of a mountain and have a ‘work-free’ mind. Keeping fit is an important part of my life. There’s always a way to get some exercise in, you just have to plan for it.”
Dr Jamieson recommends some strategies to bust stress that won’t take you away from your family for extended periods:
- Dads need to carve out time to exercise. Do something on a regular basis: 20 minutes daily is better than one hour twice a week. You should do the type of exercise that leaves you out of breath to be effective.
Quality family time
- It is important to communicate with family. If you’re travelling, then keep in touch using Skype or the telephone. This reduces the connective isolation of being away from loved ones.
- A good diet full of green vegetables and no sugar will give you the hormonal building blocks to calm and relax the brain. Magnesium and vitamin B supplements will support and calm the brain and nervous system, as will essential fatty acids such as fish oil, evening primrose or flax.
- Our smartphones and instant internet access leads to more stress. It may seem like a bright time-saving idea, but doing one thing at a time is better because we make fewer mistakes and we don’t have to re-do things.