Saturday, January 16, 2021

China's Young Workers Rebel Against 996 Work Schedule

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.

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