The People’s Republic of Burnout
Inside China’s unforgiving, and sometimes deadly, culture of burnout.
In October, the sudden death of 44-year-old Zhang Rui shook China’s tech community to its core. Zhang, the founder and CEO of Chunyu Doctor, a mobile health startup, died from a heart attack. In an emotional tribute on social media, Zhang’s wife wrote, “When we got married, you were not a car or home owner, neither did you make any savings. Now you are gone, you still hadn’t bought me a car or house. … We didn’t even have time or energy to have our own child.”
It wasn’t just Zhang’s relative youth and outward success that made headlines. His death served as a wake-up call for many in China’s tech industry, with its infamous culture of stress and burnout.
In hindsight, all the warning signs were there. Zhang spoke openly of Chunyu Doctor’s struggles, which caused him severe anxiety. He told China’s Blog Weekly magazine in March 2015 that he couldn’t sleep for two months during the company’s B round financing. He sent early-morning emails about product design or the business model before putting on a brave face to talk to investors in the morning. “I have been really anxious. I can’t eat or sleep well, every day,” Zhang said.
Age of anxiety
Now, the loss of the well-respected tech entrepreneur has reignited debates about stress and burnout in China. As Wang Lifen, founder of the online video platform Youmi, put it: “I once surveyed a class of dozens of entrepreneurs, and barely anyone looked well. Their anxieties were written on their faces and in their body language. The anxieties stemmed from financing, competitors’ poaching, regulatory panic, broken families, fighting with friends and partners, a broken capital chain, the fear before a business model is tested, and alliances among business giants. In short, these people feel restless inside, but are envied by outsiders, because they have established a reputation as entrepreneurs, appearing at all sorts of forums and in the spotlight.
No evidence has linked Zhang’s death directly to overwork or burnout. But Dr. Zheng Gang, associate professor of the department of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Zhejiang University’s School of Management, told Thrive Global that Zhang’s approach to his career and resulting struggles are hardly unique.
“Chunyu Doctor said that Zhang Rui’s death was not caused by overwork, but as far as I know, the feelings of being overtired and anxious are very common among entrepreneurs, including Zhang Rui,” he said. “Many of them often stay up late, or even work all night long.”
And despite the lack of a direct link, “his passing is certainly a very sobering cautionary tale that all entrepreneurs should heed,” according to TechWire Asia.
In the midst of a notable economic slowdown, Chinese policymakers are looking to entrepreneurship and innovation to drive the country’s sustainable growth. At this year’s National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang promised to support entrepreneurs in the Internet age, “We will help people to pool their ideas and talents through a synergy of business startups, innovation, and the Internet.” Additionally, he said, “We will use multiple channels to increase employment and encourage entrepreneurship by implementing initiatives for promoting employment of college graduates and guiding them in starting up their own businesses.”
If growth is what matters, then China’s tech industry is already succeeding. The country is witnessing an unprecedented entrepreneurship boom. On average, 12,000 new enterprises were registered every day in 2015, or eight companies per minute.
However, simply creating more opportunities for Chinese entrepreneurs doesn’t address the burnout crisis. The brutal reality is that 80% of startups in China fail, with an average lifespan of less than three years, and 95% of businesses founded by college students don’t survive. So the big question is whether China’s aspiring young entrepreneurs are mentally prepared for all the hurdles and bumps along the way.
“Chinese entrepreneurs are facing bigger and more complicated stresses than their Silicon Valley counterparts,” Dr. Zheng told Thrive Global. “The innovative and entrepreneurial environment is not fully developed in China. Apart from working tirelessly on products, entrepreneurs need to spend a great deal of energy rubbing shoulders with investors, government officials, clients, suppliers, media, and so on. Once you become well known, you start to receive many visitors, including all levels of government officials. Chinese entrepreneurs invest lots of time in things that are irrelevant to their businesses or products, but they have to attend to these things in person.”
It’s a status quo that seems almost designed to smother, but there are signs of hope for a healthier and more sustainable way of doing business. Several dot-com entrepreneurs and high-flying business leaders have broken their silence on depression, for instance, sharing their own struggles. Ren Zhengfei, founder of China’s largest telecommunication hardware manufacturer Huawei, suffered severe depression during the company’s dark days around 2000. In 2007, amid Huawei’s controversial voluntary resignation program, which contributed to a rash of suicides, Ren wrote his employees a letter: “I used to have serious depression and anxiety disorder. With the help of doctors, along with my optimism, my illness is completely cured.”
This is also true of MIT-educated Charles Zhang, one of China’s internet pioneers. Charles was diagnosed clinical depression and went on a retreat for almost two years. When he returned in 2013 to steer Nasdaq-listed Sohu.com once again, Charles admitted in a local television interview that his achievement-oriented attitude, coupled with his overnight success, had crushed him. “I had everything, but I felt so painful,” Charles recalled.
While China’s tech and business communities are mourning the premature death of Zhang Rui, it is also a wake-up call for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Apart from creating sustainable products, we should spend more time with family and friends — not till the moment that nothing can be done,” reflected Wang Dong, president of Tencent’s Shanghai portal.
But could it be easier said than done?
“I feel drained”
When Fiona Wang* decided to move back to Shanghai from Melbourne to look after her aging parents, little did she know that her family life would go completely out the window soon after she landed. “I am swamped at work for 11 hours on average every day, and 14 to 15 hours during peak periods. Working on weekends is the norm. Commuting takes another two hours. I feel drained,” Wang bemoaned.
Wang is far from alone. A “996” policy on working hours has come under scrutiny in China recently. The country’s largest classified website, 58.com, asked its employees to start at 9 a.m. and finish at 9 p.m., working six days a week.
The epidemic of long hours at work is becoming increasingly common in China. According to the 2014 China Labor Market Report by Beijing Normal University, Chinese worked 2,000 to 2,200 hours annually, far more than their counterparts in the United States (1,789 hours), United Kingdom (1,677 hours), Japan (1,729 hours), and Germany (1,366).
“Some people are inclined to stay at work for longer hours. They want to bury their head in the sand,” said Lin Hongjie, a Shanghai-based counseling psychologist.
A recent study has highlighted that job-related stress can put workers’ physical and emotional health at risk. 42% of Beijing’s white-collar workers said that they were under tremendous pressure at work, according to a study published in November by state-owned China International Intellectech Corporation, together with China Association of Health Promotion and Education. The survey of employees of 159 companies revealed that factors including stress, pollution, adverse work environments, excessive overtime, and bad diet are taking their toll on office workers’ health. Neck arthritis, obesity, and tooth decay are the most common physical ailments.
The study also suggested that work-related stress might be lessened if people could overcome tech addiction before bedtime. They would end up with more sleep time and consequently improve work efficiency. “Electronic devices are eating white-collar workers’ sleep time,” it said. “About 49% of them use mobile phones or iPads before going to bed. Among those going to sleep after midnight, 45% of them play on their phones.”
And China’s growing concern about our relationship with technology isn’t limited to tech and business circles. In October, a video showing an SUV fatally crushing a toddler girl while the mother checked her cell phone in Hunan province sparked outrage on Chinese social media about smartphone obsession. China’s smartphone users are expected to reach a whopping 1.4 billion by 2020. Cell phone addicts, or di tou zu (literally “low-head tribe”) are almost certainly on the rise in China. Twenty percent of people checked cell phone more than three times every hour, Deloitte found out in its 2015 China Mobile Consumer Survey, while almost 60% checked their phones one or two times every hour.
Economic stress and money worries
China’s GDP grew only 6.9% in 2015, marking its slowest growth in 25 years. Meanwhile, the world economy is experiencing turbulence and challenges. These uncertainties have clearly increased stress on senior executives across the country, as Fortune China magazine found out in a survey in November 2015. Sluggish economic environment was the biggest cause of stress for managers, and 51.4% of them worried about its actual or likely negative impact on companies’ development — up from 38.5% in 2014. Increasingly poor air quality (37.4%) and living environments and overcrowded commutes (31.6%) completed the top three woes.
Fortune China, collaborating with a Beijing-based employee assistance program provider, has been carrying out its annual stress survey on senior executives for 12 years. In 2015, the stress level of senior managers hit a new high of 77.6%. Alarmingly, 59.6% of them admitted that they had negative emotions due to stress, and 59.4% suffered insomnia or other sleeping problems. As a result, executives reported increases in both reduced productivity (74.9% vs. 70.5%) and lack of interest in work (49.4% vs. 46%) compared to the previous year.
Such anxiety and apprehension are echoed by a large share of the Chinese population, according to the Gallup World Poll. Feelings of worry and stress climbed to decade highs in 2015. “Twenty-seven percent of Chinese say they worried a lot the previous day, and 40% say they experienced a lot of stress,” reported the poll, an increase of 9% and 12%, respectively, in one year.
The poll also noted a substantial increase in stress among rural residents, from 26% in 2014 to 41% in 2015. Since China’s opening up in 1978, the urbanization rate increased from less than 20% to 56% in 2015. The trend is expected to reach 70% by 2030. “Rural Chinese likely worry that their future economic prospects are dimming as modern manufacturing requires more highly skilled employees,” the poll concluded.
Compounding the problem, those struggling financially may not have access to psychological help when they experience mental health problems. There are 5.1 million Chinese with severe mental health disorders, and over 55% of them live below the poverty line. According to professor Zhao Jingping, former head of the China Society of Psychiatry, two-thirds of China’s counties don’t have any mental health institutions, and there is a significant shortage of specialized services or health professionals for mental health patients in rural areas.
Modern crisis, ancient wisdom
Although China is simmering in a stew of 21st-century stresses, its 5,000-year-old culture and philosophy may provide viable solutions.
Chinese believe that there are two sides to everything. Though seemingly opposing, yin (the shady side) and yang (the sunny side) are the vital complementary forces in the whole universe. Take Daoism, China’s spiritual and philosophical belief. Its founder and Daoist sage Laozi observed in the Tao Te Ching,” Fortune owes its existence to misfortune, and misfortune is hidden in fortune.” Daoism teaches that if one could understand how the negative and the positive integrated in harmony—i.e., the path of life—one can have peace of mind.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also stresses that health is achieved when yin and yang are balanced, which means the body’s physical form and function are in harmony. This principle was established in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which dates back to the 2nd century B.C. TCM is the most influential medical practice in China’s long history. It remains an integral part of the country’s health care system.
But in the World Mental Health Survey done in Beijing and Shanghai, only 14% of those seeking medical help had used TCM services. China’s National Mental Health Work Plan (2015–2020), released in June last year, however, expected TCM to play a bigger role in prevention of common mental disorders.
Tai chi (also known as taiji), a popular Chinese martial art, is closely related to TCM and Daoism, too. A large number of Chinese entrepreneurs have become tai chi enthusiasts in recent years. “Tai chi has given me enlightenment on how lots of things integrate,” said Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of China’s e-commerce titan Alibaba. “How hardness and softness assist each other, and how to change the dynamic. In fact, the entire operation at Alibaba encompasses the philosophy of tai chi.”
In 2011, Jack Ma and kung fu star Jet Li launched Taiji Zen to spread “health and happiness for all.” One of its students, Li Lu, said, “This is a simpler and trendier format of tai chi. … After a day of hectic work, I am able to keep fit and relieve stress. The whole body and mind get the chance to relax.”
Ma also envisions accelerating Alibaba’s growth in the next decades with substantial investments in health care, entertainment, and sports, which he dubbed “2H” strategy: health and happiness. “How do we make people healthier and happier? It is not to build more hospitals or recruit more doctors. It is by no means to set up more pharmaceutical plants. If we do it the right way, in 30 years doctors would no longer find work, and the number of hospitals and pharmaceutical plants would shrink.”
Meanwhile, with the health services market expected to reach 16 trillion yuan by 2030, the Chinese government has put health issues, in particular, promoting healthy lifestyles and optimizing health services, at the center of its policy making, as stated in the Healthy China 2030 plan, which was released in October.
So China may not need to look far to find the solution to its crises of physical and mental well-being: the yin and yang way of life. For China’s burned-out entrepreneurs and tech-addled parents — and, in fact, for everyone — it’s exactly that balance and perspective that need to be restored.
*Name has been changed
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.