Listen to this article
In a calm bay not far from the skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s bustling downtown, hundreds of office colleagues are sweating it out together for a common cause — propelling their “dragon boats” as quickly as possible across a finishing line several hundred metres away.
Built in the shape of large war canoes and holding 20-strong crews, dozens of dragon boat teams compete each June for the right to be crowned the best rowers in the Chinese territory’s Tuen Ng (Dragon Boat) festival.
The Chinese who began the festival two millennia ago are unlikely to have envisaged how the competition has evolved into an example of workplace health consciousness, with many teams comprised of colleagues from banks, legal and accounting firms, airlines, consulates and financial services groups within the city.
Such is the festive spirit of the event that a crew from Hong Kong Disneyland dressed in costumes from the movie Mulan, while others gave their teams pun-laden names such as “Allen & Oar-very”.
“Dragon boating is the epitome of team sports,” says Alastair Kelly, relationship head for Asia Pacific at Dealogic, a data provider group that each year enters a team in the festival.
“You can’t have any single superstar who rows harder than everyone else, otherwise the whole team’s rhythm is thrown off. You win or lose as a team — there are no individual awards.”
Having recognised the benefits of organising exercise for its staff outside of work, Dealogic pays for its dragon boating employees to leave work early on eight Fridays leading up to the competition to train — an arrangement that not only took them to the 2015 final, but which the company says has enhanced workplace cohesion.
“You spend a lot of time around people in the office, and people work a lot better together if they get along well,” says Kelly. “Organised sporting events are fantastic for enhancing the work environment and keeping staff on board — it’s a big contributor towards reducing attrition. You don’t then have to go through the process of having to hire new people all the time.”
Such benefits are of particular importance in Hong Kong. A global business hub with limited inner city green space for individuals to exercise, the city harbours one of the world’s most unforgiving work cultures.
The former British colony recently topped a survey of 71 global cities for the world’s longest working hours and scored among the lowest for vacation days taken.
Hong Kong employees toil for an average of 50.1 hours each week and only take 17 days of annual paid holiday, according to UBS’ annual prices and earnings study, which collected data from 15 sectors including business, construction and education.
This compares with a mere 30.8 hours a week and 29 days of paid annual vacation for Parisians. In London, the averages are a 33.5 hours per week, with 25 annual vacation days.
But despite other stresses such as severely unaffordable housing and regularly polluted skies — courtesy of the industrial belt of mainland China’s nearby Pearl River Delta — Hong Kongers are surprisingly eager to exercise outdoors. The sight of local people of all ages out doing tai chi and other routines is a familiar one.
CBRE, the US-listed property group, is among the biggest proponents of work-organised exercise in Hong Kong, sponsoring teams for sporting events including a run up the city’s 118-storey ICC skyscraper, a 24-hour foot race around Victoria Peak, a touch rugby tournament, the British Chamber of Commerce five-a-side football competition, and the Central Rat Race — an obstacle race around the city’s downtown with participants carrying a briefcase.
“We have more than 1,000 employees at CBRE Hong Kong, so sport is a fun way to get to know colleagues that you would not normally work with,” says Tom Gaffney, CBRE’s managing director for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.
Exercise “creates a sense of community, which simultaneously ensures that colleagues are more inclined to work together as a team”, he adds. “Many colleagues have become close friends through work, so they love another reason to get together outside of work hours.”
One of the most oversubscribed workplace-organised sporting events in Hong Kong is the annual Moontrekker — a particularly challenging but popular race that tests the willpower and the knees of participants on the daunting hills of Lantau island. Starting in the late-evening, headlamp-wearing runners and walkers attempt to complete the 43km or 30km courses before sunrise.
The event, whose sponsors include British bank Barclays and CBRE, includes many work-organised teams — with a team from the Financial Times’ Hong Kong office finishing runners up in the 43km corporate event in 2014.
At Dealogic’s Hong Kong office, where some 50 per cent of the 100-strong staff partake in a range of company-organised exercise programmes, staff have formed a committee to expand their sporting activities. The group’s Hong Kong committee is also looking to replicate the success of its Tokyo branch, where staff participate in a weekly running club whose route takes them around sites such as the Imperial Palace.
Although organising such events come with a financial cost to companies, the World Health Organisation says the returns outweigh the outlays. The UN body describes workplace health programmes as some of the “best options for prevention and control of non-communicable diseases and for mental health”.
This is particularly relevant in a place like Hong Kong, where the tough work ethic has contributed to an inflated rate of stress among employees. A 2015 survey by the Hong Kong government’s Occupational Safety and Health Council found that one-quarter of the territory’s employees showed levels of depression and anxiety — double the global average.
Gaffney says there is “no doubt that work-sponsored exercise is a great return on investment for CBRE, as employees are able to bond together through a social and healthy activity”.
In India, meanwhile, a growing number of employers and employees are looking to ancient cultural forms as a means of combating stress and keeping healthy. Some have surprised themselves with how effective this step into tradition has been. As a boss, Abhay Aima had the reputation of being a disciplinarian taskmaster. Part of senior management at India’s HDFC Bank, he is a graduate of the National Defence Academy. “Even if it meant heartache for me and other people, the trick was achieving what you wanted to achieve,” he says.
Aima says he changed profoundly in 2013 after attending a three-and-a-half day programme on “inner engineering” at the popular Indian spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation. The busy banker came away with a 21-minute daily routine of yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation, which he says has helped him overcome the anxiety and palpitations that used to plague him.
“If you ask me today, ‘when did you last lose your cool,’ I really have to think,” he says. “For me, and everybody around me, it has been a drastic change.”
Since then, Aima has been a quiet but determined advocate of bringing the same techniques — called Shambhavi Mahamudra — to other HDFC employees struggling with workplace stress. As the world marked the first International Day of Yoga in June 2015, about 450 HDFC employees were given a 90-minute introductory programme to Isha’s yoga techniques.
Those interested in greater depth were given financial support by the bank to help cover the cost of the extended course, something many accepted. Aima saw it as an investment that could help his employees “declutter their mind”, and boost their concentration and focus. “It is a productive tool for corporates,” he says. “I’m not looking at it from a spiritual point of view, but from a commercial point of view.”
In sectors like banking, finance and information technology, many Indian companies are looking to yoga and other techniques rooted in ancient Indian traditions to help their harried workforce better cope with the physical and mental strains of their jobs and India’s stressful urban living.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government — which successfully appealed to the UN to designate an annual International Day of Yoga — is also actively promoting the adoption of yoga as a way to improve health and fitness in a society where obesity, diabetes and heart trouble are taking a growing toll.
“Our company’s senior leaders are extremely supportive of helping people be more fit,” says Kalpana Maniar, information chief at Mumbai-based financial advisers Edelweiss Capital, which offers yoga classes to its employees, as well as less traditional activities like Zumba dance fitness sessions.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has provided its employees in India with introductory yoga courses, as part of stress management training. Many companies, especially in the booming IT industry, provide regular yoga courses on site to interested workers.
Some even hold their management retreats or executive off-sites at upmarket ashrams — centres of yogic study. One such is the Isha Foundation’s headquarters in Coimbatore, where training in yoga postures, meditation and breathing can be combined with more standard corporate business.
“The work pressure at the companies has become so much and we’ve got so many different health issues,” says Arun Mehta at the Isha Foundation. “We get people with diabetes at 30 or 35,” he notes. “Companies look at yoga for the welfare of their employees.”
Yoga’s physical postures and breathing exercises help stretch and strengthen muscles and improve blood circulation. It is a means of stilling a busy mind, which can help improve concentration.
Grandhi Rao, billionaire founder of infrastructure group GMR, used to make his private yoga teacher, Chow Siddhartha, available for individual sessions with members of his top management team.
Now based in India’s IT capital, Bangalore, Siddhartha runs a business that brings yoga into different corporate settings across India, both through providing regularly on-site classes, or sometimes through one-day, intensive yoga-training off-sites.
“From all over India, IT guys come to Bangalore and after three years they start suffering back pain. Most companies do not train their employees on ergonomic posture. They don’t know what should be the height of their computer. The muscles of the spine become weak.”
Siddhartha is a trained engineer who left his job with Indian Railways to study seven years at the Vivekananda Yoga University. This was after suffering severe back pain as a result of bumping around on bad roads in remote areas on his motorbike to oversee track repairs.
From his experience, and from working at the back pain clinic at the yoga university, Siddhartha is convinced that yoga can work wonders for employees suffering from too many hours in bad posture at their desk. He is even pursuing a PhD in yoga.
Despite yoga’s deep roots in India — and the deep cultural resonance it carries — he says young corporate workers are not automatically ready to embrace it, even when they are suffering physical discomfort from too much sedentary work. Siddhartha says he is often called in by companies to try to convince young employees of yoga’s potential benefits and drum up sufficient interest for classes.
“Human resource managers are very keen to introduce yoga solutions but they have to convince the employees,” he said. “They are modern, educated youth and they want proof of everything — scientific evidence that yoga works.”
At Edelweiss Capital, Maniar persuaded the company to sponsor long-term courses for its employees to practice Isha yoga. It staged an “inner engineering” workshop once in the company cafeteria and at an elegant conference centre on an island just off Mumbai. The results, she says, have not just been in employee physical health, but also in the mental wellbeing of employees, both of which improved their work performance.
“My team members who were part of the programme benefited immensely,” she argues.
“I saw how their collaboration skills had improved. They had a better perspective and were better able to deal with ambiguity, because they were more accepting of themselves.”
Get alerts on Health when a new story is published