Having just spent the last two weeks in Asia -- China and Japan, specifically -- discussing the impact of imbalance with employees at multi-national corporations, I was struck by the lack of conversations taking place about the impact of economic development on the very humans who drive much of the world's growth. Issues like stress and burnout, traditional diversity as well as diversity in work styles -- and the impact the lack of these conversations is having on local workforces.
It's no secret that employees in Asia work very hard. Ask anyone at a multi-national company in this region of the world how dedicated their teammates are, and they will smile and share a story or two: stories of super-human workweeks and sleeping at the office. In Japan, there's even a word that translates to "death from overwork": Karōshi.
For "traditional white collar" workers in Asia, Western countries' concept of work-life balance isn't really an option. And by "balance" I don't mean vacations and flexible hours. I mean reasonable hours (sub-60), and feeling it's possible to take care of basic health and personal needs like going to the doctor or attending kids' activities.
A beautiful quality of most Asian cultures is the high value they place on the health and well-being of the system over the individual. So it was not surprising to hear, during my two weeks in Asia, that workers are highly aware of and accountable for the impact their individual choices have on their work team. I heard this expressed as, "If I leave early, then my colleague might have to work more. If I stay, we can finish sooner working together."
Flipping the conversation to the impact of imbalance at the individual level met with resistance and reluctance to share experiences. This is quite the opposite of what I find in the U.S. and Europe, where it's easy to discuss the impact of imbalance on individuals and more challenging to connect the impact of individual behavior on group dynamics and outputs.
Unlike past trips to Asia, this time I encountered an openness to discussing the paradox between Western and Eastern work styles. The question of whose needs come first - the individual's or the work group's - was asked over and over again. Based on my experience, balancing both individual and system are equally important, and Western and Eastern philosophies can complement each other.
A healthy team helps each other accomplish goals. This happens best when each team member is healthy in body, mind and spirit, and is allowed and willing to share his or her needs and boundaries. And it's a situation that can only happen when leaders support open conversations around goals and needs and acknowledge what is really going on inside the organization. In Asia, this means addressing the high volume of hours and levels of stress-related illness. In the West, it means taming the "what's in it for me" mentality and creating organizational/team compassion.
As the Asian economy continues to drive huge growth opportunities for multi-national corporations the question of human sustainability needs to be addressed. This means challenging corporate systems to look more closely at individual needs, which can only happen if leaders -- and employees -- can talk openly about what is and what isn't working within the current system.