The brutal Chinese work ethic ‘996’ is immensely popular among young Chinese workers. But it is also seen as the culprit behind a disturbed work-life balance and the high stress that some adherents face, sometimes resulting in death. “996” is an unwritten rule in many workplaces. Tech leaders are touting this work ethic while workers and activists have been complaining about it for years. Here’s what you need to know about the infamous ‘996 work culture’. Also read: Bosses like Elon Musk and Jack Ma are calling for a 72-hour work week, but most employees think very differently
What is the 996 culture?
This work culture encourages or forces employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week – or to stick to a schedule of roughly the same number of consecutive hours. 996 is commonplace among Chinese tech companies and startups. While this unpaid overtime is prohibited by law in China, many Chinese companies nurture this culture among employees. “Overtime is the norm these days,” complains a blogger on social media Weibo. “More frightening is that so many young employees think this is normal and do not dare to complain. If they do it at all, it won’t help.”
How does 996 affect Chinese workers?”
The grueling 996 roster for young tech workers is a recipe for burnout. There is little time left for necessities such as sleep, sex and even a private life. As a result, some choose to say goodbye to their desire to have children. On the Github group “996.ICU” created by labor activists, critics can post examples of unreasonable overtime hours. In addition, they can blacklist companies that subscribe to the 996 work culture. The criticism surrounding ‘996’ erupted in December 2019 after a 22-year-old employee of e-commerce platform Pinduoduo in Urumqi collapsed and died on the street at 1:30 am after a long working day. The woman was seen as yet another victim of the extreme overwork culture in China. “Working in this way is harmful to the human body. We’ve heard a lot about overtime deaths in recent years. But this malformed system continues to exist,” complains one blogger. “We have to ask ourselves: is trading our lives worth the money?”
Who is behind ‘996’?
Most tech CEOs in China, in fact. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, who grew up in poverty but became one of China’s richest men, is one of the biggest proponents of 996. He calls the heavy work schedule a “blessing” for young professionals. “If you find a job you love, the 996 problem doesn’t exist,” says Ma.His WeChat channel reads: “lazy people are not my people”.
Not only Chinese tech leaders defend working long hours. Tesla’s Elon Musk also believes that people can only make an impact on the world if they work between 80 and 100 hours a week. “No one ever changed the world with a 40 hour work week”.
Is this work ethic effective?
Research shows that shorter working weeks actually make employees more productive and that people struggle with concentration problems if they continue to work for hours at a time. Sleep deprivation has been linked to cancer, obesity and memory problems. Read more about productivity:
- 4 effective ways to take breaks while working (at home) – from microbreak to intermittent resting
- 6 hacks that productivity experts use to organize their agendas: from focused work to time boxing
- Unilever is testing a 4-day workweek in New Zealand – more and more companies are experimenting with it
- 10 Tricks Extremely Busy People Use To Stay Productive.