Overtime in China Becomes the Norm in Face of White-Collar Job Insecurity

CBN Weekly

2016-12-13

(Yicai Global) Dec. 13 -- Cycling back from his job at Shenzhen’s Science and Technology Park, a mini-Silicon Valley in the southeastern province of Guangdong, at 11.00 p.m., Zhang Qiang, a worker at one of the many tech firms there paused to photograph a familiar sight in China. Half the offices were still lit, with many people working overtime.

Zhang took photos of buildings including those occupied by TCL, ZTE Development and Research, Skyworth, Lenovo and Tencent buildings. He recorded people working overtime on two or three floors at Skyworth and ZTE.

Lights were still on in almost half of the offices at the Tencent building and the Han’s Laser Tower behind it. Overtime has become part of the nightly routine in these buildings.

The park, located in China’s tech hub city Shenzhen, aspires to be China’s Silicon Valley and is home to over 3,000 technology firms. Hundreds of thousands of people like Zhang Qiang work here every day.

Shenzhen has the highest frequency of people working overtime, that is, after 9.00 p.m., making up 36.9 percent of the total working population in the city, the Pearl River Delta Smart Travel Big Data Report 2016, jointly released by Didi and CBN Data found.

A search for the keyword ‘overtime’ on Huawei’s staff bulletin-board system produced many matches exceeding the 100-page limit. In an entry from early this year, an employee complained, “I worked in the company for two years and spent 19 months on business trips. My kid is two years old, but we’ve spent less than five months together.”

Working overtime has become routine. Some employees have no choice, while others volunteered to work longer hours. Overtime has increasingly become an accepted fact among white-collar workers.

Zhang thinks that a lack of job security is the reason he is always on overtime. For him, “job insecurity stems from low self-esteem and lack of identity,” thus, he wants to become a big name as soon as possible.

Contrary to the belief that people work overtime only when they are asked to, an increasing number of professionals keep themselves busy by choice.

Seeing many of his peers already starting to work on enterprises independently, Liu Yongchao became desperate and volunteered to move from a public relations role at a legal firm to the frontline of business.

Huang Yijing joined an online media company as a front-end engineer after graduating from a master’s course this year and now she writes code for two hours after work every day.

After working as a book editor for nearly 10 years, Xu Jiaqi still works overtime three days a week. He finds he is always preoccupied with work even when he is outside the office.

They are a bunch of tireless professionals, young, unmarried and single. For them, overtime has become a means of killing time on workdays when there are no parties to go to. They would rather rely on themselves than placing their future in the hands of their employers.

They are engaged in a race against time to improve their employment prospects and change jobs at a suitable time in pursuit of personal development.

This is a reflection of the sense of job insecurity among white-collar workers. The economic downturn has increased competition in the job market.

We used to think that once we got into large corporations like foreign companies, banks and Fortune 500 companies, we would have decent jobs for the rest of our lives.

Today, however, even the largest multinationals have to cut jobs from time to time, not to mention startups are in a constant struggle to survive.

The growing wave of startups that we see today have a much broader coverage across the Chinese society, compared with those in the 1980s that led to the rise of a large number of private companies, and the “startup fever” of the 1990s.

Most startups today are concentrated in the technology sector. “Dreams” and “success” are the buzzwords of today’s entrepreneurs. The most common, however is “survive”, something all startups need to face or face extinction.

Funding is the biggest barrier confronting startup companies. Of over 1,000 startups surveyed, almost half posted zero or negative profits last year, The Startup Survey Report, published by Economics Daily, revealed.

This is particularly true among relatively new startups. Has my user base grown? Have we achieved profitability? Are the bugs fixed? What are our competitors doing? Can we survive? All these questions are spurring startups to work hard at all times and the pressure is directly passed on to their employees.

Zhang Qiang works in a dotcom startup with a staff of over 20 people. Lunch and dinner are provided by the company and reimbursement is available for taxi fares after 10:00 pm, leaving employees with little to worry about. Zhang is always on overtime until 10:00 pm or later, and his boss works even longer.

The rapid rise of the internet gave rise to the “startup fever,” as well as making a big difference in traditional businesses well beyond the IT and internet domains. Professionals working in traditional industries are also having a hard time in the face of mounting pressure for business restructuring and a desire for increased efficiency.

Employees in internet companies work the longest overtime hours at 9.3 hours a week, followed by the real estate, transport, automobile, government, finance, energy, services and media sectors with more than five hours of overtime a week, The Eight-Hour Life Quality Report for White-Collar Workers 2015 published by Zhaopin.com, a leading online recruitment firm, revealed.

In a way, advances in technology are also to blame for longer working hours. Mobile office software exploded last year. As of the end of last year, the registered users of social media-based mobile office software totaled 83 million, of whom six million were corporate users, according to statistics published by market research agency IDC.

Mobile office software allows people to work outside the office and leads to the fragmentation of working hours. It makes communication more efficient. On the other hand, however, it also blurs the boundary between work and personal life.

Not counting battery charges, Xu Xin cannot remember when was the last time that she switched off her phone. As a media planning manager at a local ad firm in Hangzhou, she has spent the last two years in a state of constant connection.

Her work dictates that she must be reachable at all times. “My clients are always online too unless they’re asleep,” Xu said.

“Being chased by clients” might be preferable to working overtime for the sake of working overtime. Unfortunately, such a demotivating work environment still exists today.

For some managers, working overtime is still considered a sign of a positive attitude. On the contrary, an efficient employee who always manages to get his job done within eight hours may not be appreciated by his manager, who may even think that he has less work to do than others.

Over time, a passivity to overtime culture became the norm without anyone questioning it.

Human resources management is generally believed to be an easy job, but HR manager Weng He works overtime almost every day. The recruitment department that he works in has five members. The working hours there officially end at 5.30 p.m., but workers habitually leave at around 7.00 or 8:00 p.m. because of the mentality that nobody wants to leave before their boss does.

One of Weng’s colleagues was moving into a new apartment and once left the office at around 6.30 p.m. Three or four days later, he was reprimanded by the boss for leaving too early.

To what extent can working overtime be associated with being hardworking? Sometimes, people put in overtime just to create the impression that they work hard. What they try to hide, however, is unproductive work during normal office hours.

In Weng’s case, his boss always gives him tasks during the day on an ad hoc basis, so he has to work overtime to finish the work that could have been completed during the day.

Wu Wei, a worker at an e-commerce firm overseeing third-party merchant operations believes that sloppy workflows and poor efficiency at the company are the main reasons that force him to work overtime.

It is a dotcom company. Ironically, every time they organize an event that requires participation by merchants, they have to go through a lengthy approval process before the event can be entered into the system. It feels like working for a state-owned enterprise, Wu said.

As a result, he always needs to work overtime until 9.00 p.m. or later. During the recent Alibaba Singles’ Day e-commerce extravaganza, he had to stay in the office until 10.00 p.m. every day.

Statistics show that in general, white-collar workers in China and Asia tend to be more workaholic than their counterparts in other places. A survey conducted by UBS Group suggests Hong Kong has the longest working hours in the world and people there work over 50 hours, in stark contrast to 30 hours a week in Paris.

In other words, white-collar workers only work six hours a day. Japan and South Korea are well-known for long hours of overtime -- capsule hotels are a by-product of the local overtime culture in Japan, where more than 2,000 people committed suicide because of overwork.

To address the issue, the Japanese government is advocating more flexible working hours and set a maximum limit on overtime. The White Paper of Countermeasures Against Karoshi, ‘Death due to overwork’, was issued in October this year with the aim of tackling overwork as a social phenomenon through administrative measures.

Working overtime is not encouraged in most Western countries. It has caused culture shocks among Chinese people working abroad. Ai Yongjia migrated to New Zealand two years ago. In his current job, his weekly working hours are equivalent to two days with his previous job in China, so he has more time to take care of his children.

Liang Rui is working at a Swedish auto company. When he started at the company, his manager reminded him not to work overtime, as it might upset his work-life balance.

The reality is that competition and elimination of staff are inevitable for fast-growing companies and working overtime is a natural choice given the conflict between limited manpower and endless work.

That said, as companies approach the end of the transition, they should call a halt to overwork as a routine practice. Long hours of overtime, forced or voluntary, are a sign of an unhealthy work environment in the company.

As a company matures, it needs to make sure that reasonable workloads are assigned to individual employees. Only in this way can employees fulfill their potential and value. It also helps the company retain more talents.

In the end, Zhang changed his job and moved to Zhongguancun, a tech hub district of Beijing. His new employer is also a startup company. He now leaves the office around two hours earlier than he did at his previous job at the Shenzhen Science and Technology Park, but he still needs to work overtime until 8.00 p.m. For him, that is a good start. At least, he can have a personal life now, something of a luxury for him and workers like him back in Shenzhen.

(Pseudonyms have been used for the interviewees at their request.)