Worked to Death
A growing number of young Chinese white-collar employees are dying of exhaustion – is the culture of mandatory overtime to blame?
Photo by CFP
On May 13, Li Zheng, a 24-year-old employee at the Beijing office of global PR firm Ogilvy, died of a sudden heart attack. “He was lying lifeless on the stretcher with a sallow face and dilated pupils. [First-aid workers] attempted to resuscitate him, but were unsuccessful,” an anonymous witness revealed on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.
According to Li Zheng’s supervisor, a woman surnamed Teng, Li had been on sick leave over the previous week, and May 13 was the young man’s first day back in the office. Another anonymous source at the company told media that Li had been working overtime for a month before falling ill and taking sick leave.
Although Ogilvy refused to reveal any further details about Li’s death, it was obvious from the 24-year-old’s public microblog posts that he was regularly to be found burning the midnight oil. In the personal description on Li’s Weibo, he called himself “an over-worker in overworking season,” and an earlier post revealed that the young man did not leave the office until 11PM on the day of his death.
Li’s sudden death stunned his friends, family and co-workers, many of whom have subsequently made public appeals for the country’s young adults to place more importance on their lives, and less on their work. “On the surface, Li Zheng had an enviable job and had showed himself to be a capable employee, but no-one knows the price he paid to prop up that façade,” said an anonymous former schoolmate of Li’s.
All Options Exhausted
Originating in Japan in the late 1960s, the term karoshi, meaning “overworked-to-death,” has come to be defined as “a state of chronic overwork and over-fatigue that gradually heightens the blood pressure and hardens the arteries, often leading to death.”
“In simple terms, over-fatigue is a pathological state of poor health – a critical state of imbalance. Overwork further aggravates this imbalance, sometimes leading to illness or death,” An Yang, a health expert from Tongrentang Clinic, a well-known traditional Chinese medicine clinic, explained to NewsChina.
According to a 2006 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, around 70 percent of the country’s white-collar workers were at risk of being “overworked to death,” many of whom, according to experts, were at immediate risk of potentially fatal cerebrovascular diseases.
A typical case was that of Pan Jie, a 25-year-old auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers China, who passed away last April due to viral meningitis. Although the company attributed Pan’s death to her delay in treating a cold, the media revealed that Pan had spent much of her working life under immense pressure.
Pan vented her stress on her microblog in posts such as “Why am I always getting a fever?” “How I long for a good sleep!” and “How I would love to have dinner at home!” One post in particular, written three months before Pan’s death, caught the attention of netizens: “I can accept overwork; I can accept [constant] business trips...but being overworked to death is beyond the pale.”
“It is the norm at the leading accounting firms for employees to work until midnight, or even until dawn in the busy season or during a big project period,” Cai Lin, a former employee with global accounting firm KPMG in China, told NewsChina. “There are no exceptions. You can choose either to stay or to quit,” she added.
A 2012 survey by hr.com.cn, a leading Chinese human resources website, showed that around 80 percent of Chinese white-collar employees regularly worked overtime, especially those in the auditing, IT and PR industries. The same year, a Peking University report on employment came to a similar conclusion, finding that Chinese employees clocked an average 8.66 hours at work every day, with over 30 percent working more than 10 hours.
However, there is as yet no clear evidence confirming that Li Zheng died from overwork. Bob Pickard, the former Asia-Pacific CEO at global PR firm Burson-Marsteller, said in an interview with Campaign China, also a PR company, that it was perhaps unfair to place blame solely on Ogilvy, since overwork is very common in the industry as a whole, especially in heavily Confucian-influenced cultures like China, South Korea and Japan.
While the term “overworked to death” is a recent introduction into the Chinese vernacular, it could be argued that to some extent, the concept of sacrificing one’s health for the benefit of a collective or organization has long been on the way to becoming ingrained in Chinese culture.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as China was in throes of the Cultural Revolution, the establishment was keen to propagate the idea of “revolutionary role models” – one subset of which were those who died, sometimes needlessly, in service of the Communist Party. One of these was Jiao Yulu, Party secretary of Lankao County, Henan Province, who, after contracting liver cancer, stayed at work until his dying day.
“[Jiao Yulu] is a good example for other cadres to follow...We should learn from his loyalty and dedication to the Party and to the people,” claimed a commentary in the State mouthpiece the People’s Daily at the time, initiating a nationwide propaganda campaign urging people to learn from Jiao’s example.
Such sentiments are still officially endorsed today. Luo Yang, the 51-year-old designer of China’s J-15 fighter jet and a leading engineer of China’s first aircraft carrier the Liaoning, was honored as “a national role model” in 2012 after he dropped dead at work due to a heart attack shortly after the carrier’s first test.
Luo had been leading a group of 15 engineers and designers on the aircraft carrier project, all of whom, in the words of State media reports, were “sacrificing their lives for work.”
“[The 15 employees] spent 15 months finishing a workload equivalent to that of 30 months, since work had been delayed due to a particularly harsh frost,” Wang Zhiguo, the project’s designer-in-chief, told the media.
Over recent decades, overwork has been spreading rapidly from government projects into private enterprise, with many even regarding it their unique corporate culture. Huawei, one of China’s homegrown telecommunications giants, for example, is noted for what is known as its “mattress culture.”
“Many Huawei developers keep mattresses in their office in case they work too late to go home. Sometimes, they work day and night without returning home for months...They just sleep on the mattress, which they see as a kind of home,” wrote Xu Mingda, director of the economics department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Shenzhen Branch, in his book on Huawei.
However, not all can handle the strain. In March 2006, 25-year-old Huawei employee Hu Xinyu died of meningitis, for the first time triggering nationwide outrage at the culture of overwork.
According to his girlfriend, Hu Xinyu had worked every day from 9 AM till 3 AM for nearly two weeks, only returning home four times during that period. “The heavy workload had forced him to work overtime, and Huawei makes working overtime one of the criteria in gauging an employee’s performance,” she told Southern Weekend, a current affairs magazine.
Huawei denied the accusations. But while no Chinese law specifically designates criminal responsibility in cases of death from overwork, the Regulation on Industrial Injury Insurance defines “any sudden disease that causes death contracted during working hours or in the line of duty, or that causes death within 48 hours of contraction” as an “industrial injury,” and mandates compensation.
Since Hu Xinyu’s illness killed him outside of the 48-hour limit, the case ended with Huawei paying Hu’s family an undisclosed sum of money as “humanitarian compensation.” “Hu Xinju did not die of overwork, but of disease,” argued Pan Jun, a spokesman for Huawei.
“It is hard to technically clarify ‘overwork-to-death’ in law. For example, how do we define the correlations between overwork and someone’s death, and who is supposed to make the definition?” Lu Junxiang, a lawyer at the Beijing-based Crown & Rights law firm, explained to NewsChina.
An Yang, the health expert, agreed. “We could say someone’s death was caused by excessive fatigue, but it is hard to prove whether that fatigue was caused by overwork, and how much it contributed to the person’s death,” she said.
China’s Labor Law sets strict rules on working hours – it is illegal for any employee to work more than 40 hours per week, and all employees are entitled to two days off work per week, in addition to national holidays. However, these provisions are rarely enforced.
Under pressure following the death of Hu Xinyu, Huawei claimed to have reduced mandatory overtime, but insiders have told the media that the “mattress culture” still prevails in the company. “Huawei’s advantage lies in its low labor costs and rapid product development capabilities. Without ‘mattress culture,’ how can Huawei compete with other international giants?” said an anonymous Huawei employee.
“When everyone is a violator, the law has failed,” Shen Jianguo, a deputy manager at a private pharmaceutical company in Zhejiang Province, told NewsChina. “Every [private] enterprise in China has to work overtime to keep up with the competition. How could we afford to be the exception? I work overtime myself,” he continued.
“Most companies would be punished if the Labor Law was strictly enforced, so the authorities have to turn a blind eye to the situation unless an employee files a complaint,” said Lu Junxiang.
However, for the sake of money and employment pressure, official complaints are a last resort for employees. “My previous job generally did not require me to work overtime, but I changed jobs for a higher salary. Now, I seldom have dinner with my wife on workdays. But because of the money, I have no plans to quit,” Shi Gang, an IT engineer at a State-owned finance company in Beijing, told NewsChina.
“Just today, our boss told us that we had to work overtime to develop a new game, and anyone who was unwilling to do so should quit. But in the end, only one person quit,” Chen Xi, a designer at a private online game producer in Beijing, told NewsChina. “Nobody wants to work overtime, but we need a job,” he added.
This partly explains why Huang Zixuan, a 22-year-old college graduate, accepted a job offer from a private dress design studio in Shanghai, even though she was told she would have only one day off per week.
“We have little to bargain with,” she told our reporter. According to media reports, nearly 7 million college graduates will enter the Chinese job market this year, 190,000 more than last year, while the number of available positions has dropped by 15 percent.
“The government actually faces a conundrum. Were it to tighten the enforcement of the law, most enterprises would incur huge costs expanding their staff or lengthening their product development time, which would be a significant financial burden. While if the laws remains loosely implemented, and workers continue to be deprived of their right to rest, the physical and psychological health of workers will suffer,” Lu Junxiang said. “It is really not a simple problem of legislation.”
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