China’s tech workers burn out in the ‘996’ rat race
Wang Shichang works 12 hours a day, often for six days a week. The newlywed is so busy he says he barely has time for his wife.
At the age of 28, Wang’s energy levels are low. His eyes feel strained and dry. His sleep is light, and he says he’s put on 20 pounds since he started working as a developer four years ago.
“Climbing four floors makes me out of breath these days,” he says.
Wang blames his condition on what’s known in China as “996” — a grueling work schedule that stretches from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, which has become the norm at many Chinese tech companies and start-ups.
The topic has prompted heated debate on social media, with many tech tycoons and entrepreneurs weighing on the merits of long and stressful working hours. Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and one of China’s richest men, drew criticism earlier this year after he endorsed long work hours, calling them “a blessing.”
Wang doesn’t agree with Ma — and he’s not the only one. Many others have been voicing their complaints on Github, an online forum known in the tech world for code-sharing.
They also share “anti-996” memes that poke fun at their predicament. In one, a Japanese actress was photoshopped to carry a sign saying: “Developers’ lives matter.” In another, a couple hold up wine glasses with the caption: “Come, let’s celebrate being in the same room together for the first time in two years.” The Github project has been liked more than a quarter of a million times.
Despite the humor, Wang, the tech workers and experts alike say overwork is leading to serious mental and physical health problems.
Long hours and excessive overtime were, for decades, commonplace in the country’s manufacturing industry. Now, a long-hours culture has spread to China’s offices.
A 2018 survey by China Central Television and the National Bureau of Statistics suggested that, on average, Chinese people have 2.27 hours of leisure time a day — less than half the time that people enjoy in the US, Germany and the UK.
According to a 2018 government-led survey on mental health in China, half of 403 surveyed tech workers said they were fatigued. Others reported vision problems, poorer memory, and spine and neck disorders.
Zhu, a 25-year-old programmer based in Shanghai, says most people in his company now suffered from “flat back syndrome” — a disorder that causes the spine to lose its natural low back curve. It can be caused by incorrect sitting postures.
“In the annual checkup, some doctors just skip the spine test and check the flat back box by default,” Zhu says. He added it’s “almost impossible” to maintain a good posture when sitting for long hours at work.
On top of the physical symptoms, Wang says his mental health has been affected, too.
“Stress at work makes my depression so much worse that I have to get clinical treatment for it,” he says.
Wang says his doctor urged him to better manage his work stress and get more sleep, but he says he finds it hard to make tradeoffs.
“My wife and I sometimes cut short our sleep to do things we enjoy,” Wang says. “I could sleep in at weekends, but I’d rather set an alarm and allocate more time to things like watching movies and going to concerts.”
Twenty Wu, a 23-year-old software developer for a Chinese e-commerce site, says he faces a similar challenge — wanting to cram in non-work activities and get enough sleep.
“I arrive home at around 11 p.m. on workdays and just go straight to bed with no time or energy for entertainment or study,” says Wu.
Of course, overwork is not limited to China.
Neighboring Japan and South Korea also share the culture of prolonged working hours. The terms Karōshi and gwarosa, in Japanese and Korean respectively, both refer to death from overwork.
The US counterpart of 996 is the “hustling” culture that emphasizes overwork and is celebrated in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the entrepreneur founder of electric car maker Tesla, once said he worked 80 to 90 hours a week, claiming: “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”
‘Boring and repetitive’
According to Xiang Yuanzhi, chief editor of the Internet Economy magazine, one reason this younger generation of tech workers feels they’ve been treated unfairly is a mismatch between expectation and reality.
Many are well-educated but find the work and pay offered by tech jobs aren’t what they had imagined. And unlike other high-intensity professionals, such as doctors or scientists, programmers do not receive equal social status and respect, which further reduces their sense of satisfaction, Xiang explains.
“Their work is mostly boring and repetitive, with focuses on tiny parts of gigantic projects of codes,” he says. “It’s extremely hard to get a sense of fulfillment.”
“To be blunt, programmers are essentially no different from assembly line workers,” Wang adds. “Young Chinese coders have grown up with a more affluent life. They demand more personal freedom and pursuits.”
Among the 40 Chinese tech workers CNN reached out to, few said they had sought counseling or help from employee support services — something that not many Chinese technology companies provide.
Enoch Li, who runs a mental health consultancy for companies in China, says that in her experience, the mental wellness of employees is low on the list of things that tech entrepreneurs worry about.
“Sometimes they just don’t have the budget for it,” she says.
Even for Chinese companies that offer employee assistance programs, it’s more likely to be a one-way emotional support hotline that simply listens.
Li says Chinese companies overemphasize “emotional resilience” or “perseverance” but fail to tell employees when to quit putting on a brave face. And the stigma surrounding mental health issues in China means that many workers don’t express how they feel or seek help.
Zhu agrees that receiving mental health care can be frowned upon.
“Yes, I feel anxious, but it never occurred to me that I need help from a therapist,” says Zhu, who works for a foreign-funded tech company that provides employees with a free counseling service.
Wang hasn’t been so lucky. None of the five Chinese tech firms he’s worked for has provided any mental health services, he says. He diagnosed his illness by watching YouTube videos on depression and reading online forms.
Wang says he still battles with depression but is seeing a therapist, taking medication and making time to listen to music has helped — although the long hours he’s expected to work haven’t changed.