In early September, Kaifu Lee, a popular Chinese venture capitalist and former president of Google China, announced to his microblog followers that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma. His complaints about being overworked have gone viral, sparking debate about the over-zealous work ethic of China’s better-heeled. In a comment (registration required) that was forwarded over 100,000 times he said, “Before, I believed that hard work always bring returns. So I put a heavy burden on myself…Now I see that this idea of sacrificing health in the name of perseverance isn’t necessarily right.”
It’s widely known that China’s factory workers have had it with poor working conditions. But the labor woes of the country’s white-collar workers are often overlooked. That’s because Chinese entrepreneurs and employers take extreme working hours as a given, often with little complaint. Huawei president Ren Zhengfei once bragged that the telecom firm’s advantage over other multinationals was that his employees were willing to “devote more and suffer more than others.” (In the early days of its operation, staff would sleep over night on mattresses underneath their desks.) Lee admits in his blog post that he used to compete with others over who could sleep fewer hours. “I was naive…. now I am calm and can take time to think,” he wrote.
Accordingly, Chinese companies offer some of the fewest days of paid vacation in the world: five days for those who have worked at their company between one and 10 years. And many don’t even take those days off. According to one survey, less than 40% of Chinese employees polled this year said they weren’t given their full holiday. Three-quarters of Chinese workers say their stress levels are rising, compared with the global average of 48%, according to a 2012 survey by office space supplier Regus.
Chinese officials say they’re concerned about cases of guolaosi, the Chinese translation of the Japanese term for “death by overwork,” even though extreme hours and dedication are still celebrated. Last year, when a Chinese engineer charged with developing China’s first carrier-based fighter jet died of a heart attack on the job, the state-run media extolled him as “a martyr” and national hero.
But as the response to Lee’s news shows, the chance to become a martyr isn’t rewarding enough. “We all work too hard. Health should be number one. We need to think about this,” one blogger wrote (registration required). Another said, “That’s a tough lesson.” To better compete for top talent, some multinationals in Shanghai have started allowing more flexible hours and letting people work from home. One user wrote, “These words are particularly important for young professionals in big cities right now. Previous advice from successful business people have misled them to sacrifice themselves, their health, their time with family and friends… being a human is more important than working.” Work-life balance is now among the top five most important factors to potential Chinese employees, even ahead of financial security, according to the human resources consulting firm Randstad.
The hardship is taking its toll. Career management consultants say “naked” resignations, in which workers quit one job before lining up another because they are frustrated or burned out, have been increasing in recent years.