Published in Sun Hung Kai’s Office Life magazine February 2008
Mrs Tse is a breast cancer survivor living with her son in Hong Kong. In addition to her weak health, she worries about her husband who works as a factory manager in Shenzhen and is the family’s sole bread-winner.
Mrs Tse also pines for their daughter who recently completed her tertiary studies in Australia and has decided to stay on Down Under.
Their son, now in Form Three, feels the burden of having to live up to his sister’s academic achievements and the responsibility of being the sole family member to keep his fragile mother company. As a result, he is passive, sullen and makes no effort in his studies.
The stress from globalisation and the push to perform has clearly taken its toll on the Tse family. However, they are not alone and life is not that much different for many other Hong Kong families as they too try to cope with the stresses that their individual circumstances bring them.
No one in Hong Kong is exempt from stress, according to Sandra Tsang, head of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Parents feel the burden of having to provide for the family and no matter how rich a family may be, they never seem to make enough.
While the poor struggle to make ends meet, the rich worry about their investments because they are afraid of losing their wealth and ending up poor. The middle-class, meanwhile, toil away to collect a critical mass of investment money so that they may join their rich neighbours.
Running to Keep Still
Hong Kong people typically work one and a half workload but earn just one salary. “They are expected to excel in multiple dimensions,” observed Dr Tsang, an expert in family stress and parenting.
And with China’s economy rising so fast, Hong Kong stands in constant fear of losing its competitive edge. This puts a lot of stress on working parents, who are constantly driven to better themselves. Many choose to study for further degrees, adding more stress to their already hectic and demanding lives.
Children have not got the better end of the stick. Dr Tsang believes that Hong Kong children are worse off than their ‘overbooked’ peers in the United States. “In school, there are so many subjects to learn, then there is the extra-curricular activities and the after school tutoring. This is the life of a typical Hong Kong student.
“There is a big competition to get into the best schools and the race starts from before pregnancy,” she noted. “Children in Hong Kong are expected to develop multiple intelligences. They need to excel in sports. They need to build up a portfolio of achievements.”
While many children from middle-class families tend to be over-scheduled with three or four activities like piano, ballet and badminton, in addition to their school work; kids from the poor families who are unable to afford these activities just “hide in a corner and don’t say a word”, said Dr Tsang, which in itself is a source of great stress.
All too often the pressures that we face at work and in school get brought back into our homes and hurt our family lives. Long hours spent fulfilling too many obligations outside the house means that parents and children are exhausted by the time they get home in the evenings. Exhaustion breeds impatience.
“By the time we get home, our tempers are not good and we are snappy with those closest to us,” described Dr Tsang. “This harms family relationships in the long run.”
Dr Tsang explained that when someone is physically tired, they might just sit around and sulk. “All their ability to speak has been used up outside. They may think, ‘I have enough stress outside, why do you force me to talk. I just want to rest’,” she described.
Early warning signs to watch out for include physical symptoms such as allergies, digestive problems, sleep disturbance and chronic fatigue. “You may jump up from bed at 4 am feeling very upset that there is a lot of unfinished work to be done,” Dr Tsang explained.
We can also become impatient, start to feel insecure, develop low self-esteem and don’t feel competent even though we may be doing whatever is required of us.
On the social level, we may not get along with loved ones leading us to feel bad about ourselves. “We feel guilty about being snappy with our family members,” Dr Tsang said. “But the next time we see them, we are still snappy because we dare not be snappy with people outside. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
One way to keep family stress at bay is to prioritise family time when parents and children can relate to each other in a meaningful way, leaving behind the pressures of work and school commitments.
Time spent together as a family unit needs to be protected and preserved as sacred. Only if family relationships are kept healthy will we have a support system solid enough to rely on as we confront the stresses and strains of functioning in a fast-paced, competitive world or face family crises.
“We need to protect family time. Have at least three meals together in a week. Treat it as if you have an appointment with your biggest customer,” advised Dr Tsang. “Mark it in your diary as the first thing, instead of saying, after all my appointments I have three minutes for you, my dear wife.”
Tips for coping with stress
• Be more self-aware: Individuals should be alert to their own condition and take responsibility for it.
• Treat family time as sacred: Spend regular quality time with your family away from the stresses of life.
• Take time out for friends/neighbours: We all need social support, aside from family, to stay sane and to relax.
• Eat well: Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates and drink lots of water.
• Exercise: Regular exercise boosts the body’s production of beta-endorphins, a chemical that helps us to ‘feel good’.
• Lighten up: Take a hard look at all your commitments and those of your children and decide if they can be trimmed down.