One of the pleasant aspects of my new life in Beijing has been rediscovering what it's like to have a lunch break. A whole hour and a half in the middle of a work day to do with whatever I want. That's enough time to meet friends and have an actual sit down lunch. At my old job in Australia, the most common sit down lunches I had were at my desk. Here, you can go for a walk or the gym (depending on pollution), or be productive and get some chores done. Some of my colleagues even take a nap.
I've never had such a good work life balance so it came as a shock to read that this is not the case for many people in China. Young people especially are literally working themselves into an early grave. CCTV reported a recent case of a 24-year-old engineer believed to have died from overwork. While the overtime problem was news to me, it didn't take much digging to see pressure on workers to remain at their desks way past their 8 hours is up has been building for some time. Even those that clock off on time are only a phone call or email away thanks to the internet and mobile phones.
In 2014, it was estimated that 600,000 Chinese die from working too hard each year. Although it's hard to pin down exactly what fatal conditions count towards that, it's an alarming figure. The response to some extreme cases of overtime on social media suggests many stressed out, tired workers don't find it too hard to believe.
Overtime in short bursts is not a bad thing. It gives companies the flexibility to cope with particularly busy times or short term issues. The problem is when the increased workload becomes the norm.
So what can be done about it? One story about this issue, referred to advice on sina.com.cn suggesting people manage fatigue by eating more fruit and vegetables, avoiding coffee, exercising and taking a shower. While those tips are fine for leading a generally healthier and hygienic lifestyle, less caffeine and snacks is not going to be much help to people chained to their desk.
There's really only one solution. Less hours. We can convince someone to go home when they are desperate to impress their superiors, or fear being labeled a slacker if they don't work round the clock, depends more on their colleagues than the boss. No one wants to be the first out the door, but if everyone in a division or team jointly decides not to stay back all hours, no one can be singled out.
That is, of course, easier said than done. Excessive overtime is broader than just a workplace culture. Several academics have pointed to a Chinese belief in total dedication, combined with pressure to contribute to the nation's ever increasing global business might. Adjusting that mindset to allow for a better work life balance will be much harder than changing workers' diets.
Rose Bolger joined China Daily at the start of November 2016 as a copy editor at the website. Having left her home in the small Australian city, Hobart, to move to one of the biggest cities in the world, she's looking forward to exploring Beijing. During her 10-year career as a journalist she has worked for newspapers, radio and television networks.
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