Over­time’s vic­tims

Health ex­perts say some Chi­nese work­ers could be over­do­ing it

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - ByWANGYING in Shang­hai wang_y­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Deng Le­jun is sched­uled to be­come a fa­ther for the sec­ond time in about two months, but he isn’t quite sure if he would even get to wit­ness the mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion.

As the fund in­vest­ment di­rec­tor at a pri­vately-owned in­vest­ment com­pany, Deng works on av­er­age 24 ex­tra hours per week.

“The na­ture of my work means there are many im­promptu tasks, so get­ting as­signed ex­tra work is very com­mon. I oc­ca­sion­ally have to leave the ta­ble when hav­ing din­ner with my fam­ily and rel­a­tives to have a tele­phone con­fer­ence about ur­gent projects,” said the 35-year-old Hu­nan na­tive.

Deng added that one of his tough­est as­sign­ments in­volved hav­ing to com­plete a huge project within just two weeks. He and his team ended up spend­ing most of their time at the project site, work­ing till as late as 3 am ev­ery day and hav­ing to wake up by 6 or 7 am.

This is­sue on over­time cul­ture has in­her­ently sparked dis­cus­sions about the need to main­tain work-life balance and the types of prob­lems fre­quent over­time work can cause to not just in­di­vid­u­als, but their fam­i­lies as well.

In late Au­gust, 40 women bran­dished plac­ards in a down­town shop­ping mall as part of a per­for­mance art event that sought to raise aware­ness about the fam­ily prob­lems that over­time work have trig­gered.

Writ­ten on the plac­ards were quotes such as: It’s such a lux­ury for me to lie on the sofa and watch TV with you; Do you know that I’m four weeks preg­nant; Do you re­mem­ber the last time that you kissed me; I do not want a de­signer hand­bag, I just want you to hug me.

Xie Nana started work in a pub­lic re­la­tions agency in Shang­hai two years ago and she said she once had to work over­time for an en­tire month.

“On av­er­age, I work five weeks a month, which means I work an ex­tra four to five hours ev­ery day in a month,” said Xie.

“One of the cra­zi­est over­time work­ing ex­pe­ri­ences hap­pened in a week­end in late Au­gust when I got a call from a client ask­ing me to com­plete an ur­gent task in a day. I worked on the project from four in the morn­ing un­til 7 pm the next day.”

How­ever, the 24-year-old said that she does not mind work­ing over­time as she is paid ex­tra for her ef­forts. Xie, who dreams of work­ing for a For­tune 500 com­pany one day, also be­lieves that she is hon­ing her abil­i­ties and tol­er­ance for stress with all the ex­tra work.

A widespread phe­nom­e­non

Re­search has shown that many other peo­ple in the same shoes as Deng re­gard over­time work as an obli­ga­tion they have to ful­fill else they risk los­ing their com­pet­i­tive­ness in the work­place.

“Chi­nese be­lieve that work­ing over­time helps them to stay com­pet­i­tive. Work­ing over­time is also a unique phe­nom­e­non in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries like India or Bangladesh,” said Yu Hai, a Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor.

“I have lived in Canada for a year and I re­al­ized that few peo­ple there work over­time. This may have a lot to do with their strict la­bor laws, strong la­bor unions and the at­ti­tude to­wards work and life.”

Ac­cord­ing to Yu, work­ing over­time has to­day be­come part an in­trin­sic part of com­pany cul­ture across China, re­gard­less of whether it is a do­mes­tic en­ter­prise or for­eign cor­po­ra­tion, and no mat­ter the type of pro­fes­sion.

“Take a taxi driver in the city for ex­am­ple — he or she has to work for at least eight hours to pay for the car rental and fuel. This means that they have to work even longer to make a profit,” Yu said.

He also noted that a Chi­nese uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor of­ten has to do twice or even triple the amount of work a Euro­pean pro­fes­sor does in or­der to earn the same amount of money.

Gu Xiaom­ing, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor from Fu­dan Uni­ver­sity, cited the na­ture of to­day’s so­ci­ety as part of the rea­son for over­time work.

“We have ar­rived at a new age where the def­i­ni­tion of work­ing over­time has be­come deeply rooted in the work­place, es­pe­cially for peo­ple who work in the cre­ative and soft­ware in­dus­tries,” said Gu.

“Also, the de­vel­op­ment of Chi­nese en­ter­prises re­quire em­ploy­ees to work harder so that their com­pa­nies have an edge in the highly com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try.”

A worth­while sac­ri­fice for a bet­ter fu­ture

To oth­ers, how­ever, work­ing over­time doesn’t ac­tu­ally re­sult in di­rect fi­nan­cial gain. Zhou Yu, a Shang­hainese who works as an an­a­lyst at a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions en­ter­prise, agrees that do­ing over­time is the only way to main­tain a com­pet­i­tive edge in the cos­mopoli­tan city. He does not get over­time pay.

“We have to take care of both our par­ents and our kids. In or­der to have bet­ter ca­reer progress and prospects, we have to put in ex­tra ef­fort in work to make our­selves look out­stand­ing,” said Zhou, who has at least one ex­tremely busy week per month when work starts at 8:30 am and ends around mid­night ev­ery day.

“How­ever, that was noth­ing com­pared to my crazy ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing just 10 hours of rest in three days,” re­called the 32-year-old who added that he has found his body takes a longer time to re­cover af­ter work­ing overnight.

Yan Yue­jin, a re­search di­rec­tor at a real es­tate re­search in­sti­tu­tion, does over­time ev­ery day due to the na­ture of his job. He of­ten has to con­sult gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and deal with nu­mer­ous queries from en­ter­prises and in­di­vid­u­als.

He re­called hav­ing to rush to com­plete an anal­y­sis about a new prop­erty pol­icy in Nan­ning, Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion, af­ter a state me­dia reporter had re­quested that he pro­vide one be­fore 3 am.

How­ever, Yan does not lament hav­ing to do ex­tra work. In fact, he does so will­ingly.

“I of­ten vol­un­teer to work over­time be­cause it boosts my ca­reer prospects. The sky­rock­et­ing home prices and the pres­sure of hav­ing to pay for a mort­gage have also pushed me to work harder so that I can make more money,” said Yan.

While Yan has al­ready got­ten used to the large work­load, the ir­reg­u­lar meal times and lack of sleep have had an ad­verse im­pact on his health. Yan is de­ter­mined to rec­tify this sit­u­a­tion once he gets mar­ried. But the prob­lem now, he says, is that he doesn’t even have the time to find a girl­friend.

Learn­ing how to deal with over­time work

Chen Haidong, a fa­ther of a three-year-old son, said that he only has half an hour dur­ing break­fast on week­days to play with his tod­dler.

An em­ployee at a for­eign com­pany, Chen usu­ally works till 9 pm ev­ery day and he con­sid­ers him­self very lucky if he ac­tu­ally gets to spend a com­plete week­end with his fam­ily.

Hav­ing been in the work­force for eight years, he added that he has learned how to in­duce some fun into over­time work.

“When I first started work at a lo­cal com­pany, I had a re­ally tough time. I had no so­cial life. I was just work­ing day and night,” said the 33-year-old.

“Now, when over­time work can­not be avoided, I would share cig­a­rettes with my col­leagues and we would or­der bar­be­cue at mid­night to add some joy to our ex­haust­ing jobs,” he said.

An­other way of deal­ing with the stress, said Chen, is con­vinc­ing him­self that his cur­rent woes are akin to an in­vest­ment, that “work­ing over­time to­day means not hav­ing to work over­time in the fu­ture”.

How­ever, he does con­cede that it is im­pos­si­ble to es­cape hav­ing to do over­time work as get­ting pro­moted equates to hav­ing even more re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Re­gard­less, he still tries his best to strike a balance be­tween work and life.

“It is very dif­fi­cult, but I’ve tried to make the best of it. And for me, tak­ing my boy out and be­ing with him is the best way for de­com­pres­sion. It makes me for­get my work.”

A fu­ture of no over­work?

China has a slew of la­bor laws and reg­u­la­tions that aim to tackle the prob­lem of com­pa­nies over­work­ing their staff.

The lat­est 2015 edi­tion of China’s la­bor law states that em­ploy­ees’ health must be taken se­ri­ously and that they should not work more than eight hours a day. The total work­ing time should also be within 40 hours per week. It also stip­u­lates that on oc­ca­sions when em­ploy­ees have to work over­time, they should not be work­ing for more than three ex­tra hours per day, or more than 36 hours per month.

In ad­di­tion, em­ploy­ees work­ing over­time should be paid be­tween 150 and 300 per­cent ex­tra of their orig­i­nal daily salaries.

Un­for­tu­nately, ex­perts said that many com­pa­nies ig­nore the reg­u­la­tions re­gard­ing max­i­mum work hours and ex­tra pay. Some even resort to sack­ing their em­ploy­ees who are re­sis­tant to the over­time work cul­ture.

Af­ter sev­eral months of hav­ing to work from 8 am to mid­night as well as hav­ing to drink three cups of cof­fee ev­ery day, Louisa Luo said that her health has taken a se­ri­ous beat­ing.

“I have asthma and there’s a time of the month when I’m con­stantly cough­ing due to al­ler­gies. But every­body around me is work­ing so hard, as if there is no to­mor­row, so I just have to fol­low. I don’t re­ally see a fu­ture here for me but I don’t have a choice,” said the 36-year-old mother of a kinder­garten boy.

Deng is no dif­fer­ent. He said that his health has wors­ened and that al­most all his col­leagues are suf­fer­ing from cer­vi­cal prob­lems as a re­sult of their seden­tary life­style where they are con­stantly seated at their desks.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2015/2016 Stay­ing@Work Sur­vey by global risk man­age­ment and ad­vi­sory firm Wil­lis Tow­ers Wat­son, stress is the lead­ing work­force risk in the world.

In the Asia Pa­cific, how­ever, the big­gest em­ployee health risk was cited as the lack of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity.

Re­searchers have also found that prob­lems aris­ing from work-re­lated health prob­lems or de­pres­sion re­sult in mas­sive losses for com­pa­nies. For ex­am­ple, the Euro­pean Risk Ob­ser­va­tory has es­ti­mated that work-re­lated de­pres­sion and ab­sen­teeism cost com­pa­nies in Europe €617 bil­lion ($693 bil­lion) and €272 bil­lion re­spec­tively ev­ery year.

“The ris­ing la­bor costs in China and peo­ple’s grow­ing aware­ness of their rights will even­tu­ally make the cost of work­ing over­time too large to af­ford. This could prob­a­bly sig­nal the start of the end of such over­time prac­tices,” said Yu.

Gu also urged do­mes­tic com­pa­nies to be more eth­i­cal in their treat­ment of their em­ploy­ees, say­ing that an over­worked em­ployee who ends up sick or de­pressed would very likely cause more prob­lems than solve them.

In 2014, a Tokyo court or­dered a restau­rant to pay 58 mil­lion yen ($568,797) in com­pen­sa­tion to the fam­ily of an em­ployee who was found to have com­mit­ted sui­cide af­ter work­ing nearly 200 ex­tra hours a month for seven months.

The sky­rock­et­ing home prices and the pres­sure of hav­ing to pay for a mort­gage have also pushed me to work harder so that I can make more money.” Yan Yue­jin, a re­search di­rec­tor at a real es­tate re­search in­sti­tu­tion

LAI XINLIN FOR CHINA DAILY

Women take plac­ards to the down­town shop­ping mall to raise aware­ness about the perts of the over­time work cul­ture in China.

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