Jack Ma created controversy recently by his comments lauding overtime work and rejecting prospective employees looking for a 9 to 5 job.

“To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss” he was quoted as saying in an internal memo. 996 is the reference to the practice of working 12 hours as ay, 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. This is a practice highly prevalent in China and the technology sector in particular.

This created a furore, with many people objecting, and pointing out that the technology sector is littered with young professionals who died early as a result of intense stress. Such deaths are not uncommon in Asia and in Singapore, we too have a few of them.

Jack Ma then backtracked on his remarks. In later remarks, he said that to force workers to work overtime is “unsustainable”. Indeed, he asserted that companies that thought they could profit by forcing staff to work overtime were foolish and doomed to fail.  

Now to be sure there are different patterns in overtime employment. The “normal” practice would be one of occasional overtime in response to a surge in demand or orders. However much of overtime is rather persistent and most of the time than occasional. And in most instances, this is often not compensated with additional pay unless there is a statutory requirement. And I think this is the overtime that is the norm under the 996 rule in China.

Effects of overtime

The effects of overtime on workers are clear.  Workers affected by it have only one word for it: “exploitative”. That’s because such kind of overtime is rarely accompanied by commensurate remuneration, and even if it is, it does not entirely make up for it. The huge burden of stress is not just seen in the documented deaths of not quite a few young professionals, but in other indices as well.

Overtime work is often accompanied by the deterioration of a significant number of HR indices. These include the following such as increased employee turnover, higher rates of medical absenteeism, increase medical expenditure due to stress-related illnesses and perhaps a higher rate of accidents and defects in work products.

On a personal level, besides experiencing higher stress levels, employees as individuals may experience a higher level of social dysfunction resulting in disruptive relationships in both family and social life. Support networks are no longer supportive. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for my findings in the 1990s in a survey of employees. More than 3 quarters of those surveyed indicated that they had an adequate support network, but less than half looked to their support network for social support!

Stress is not only played out in a higher incidence of stress-related conditions such as gastric ulcers, heart attacks to name as examples. Stress is also related to behaviours that have harmful social and health effects such as alcohol, smoking, addiction to drugs, eating disorders, high-risk behaviours eg dangerous driving and promiscuity.

And that’s not forgetting that stress means a lowering of productivity because of the impact of stress individually and socially. Thus, your employees may spend more time at work, but their work output does not quite measure up.

Is overtime a choice?

Jack Ma in his comments noted the 996 culture in China could be a “huge blessing” for young workers who found careers they were dedicated to. In my work with employees who were afflicted with much overtime work in my clinical practice, I found that this is not entirely true.

Yes, I did find young enthusiastic individuals who willingly embraced such overtime culture because they wish to get into that particular industry, some do it for money as well if those companies offer a higher compensation because of the high stress, and there are some who did it for a combination of both objectives. But what interests me was the time limit they set for themselves when they would exit such companies and industries.

And note that it is the very young who are usually confronted with such stark choices. As they get older, they have more bargaining chips as in more experience and better qualified.

In real life, I found that some may exit earlier, others may exit on the target date or later than set. It seemed that work experience can influence whether this set date for departure is brought forward or delayed. If the work stress with or without the office politics was unbearable, they would most likely leave sooner, or if they found a boss who was caring enough to make the work bearable, then this may be delayed for some time.

One such executive who entered the financial industry and had set a date when he would exit after accumulating enough savings to move on had the misfortune of ending up with a heart attack just weeks before his planned departure. That was how he ended up seeking me for help. So the cost of being in a highly stressed job can lead to unintended consequences that can upset all our calculations and planning.

Of course, there are those who are intending entrepreneurs or those who loved that particular industry who would enjoy it and therefore embrace it happily and willingly. For this group of individuals who are passionate about what they do, there is always the possibility that they would move on to another stage in their career when they do not have to work long hours.

A close friend brought up the case of Li Ka Shing, whose work ethic was legendary. Until he retired at age 89, he worked a 16 hour day consistently including weekends. The difference is that Li has complete control over how much he needed to work and that makes a difference. For the majority that has to work long hours, there is little control over the hours they worked. And control over the duration of stress is an important factor for us to experience less stress than expected. Ditto for Jack Ma. For both Li and Ma then, we have to say that they have a choice.

For the exploited class, they would say, “no choice!” As the choice is that of no job or a job with long hours, that is probably true. The only real choice that they have is their resolve to exit at a predetermined date. That gives them a sense of freedom.

Overtime as a managerial tool

In my experience, overtime is often avoided by most employees if they can help it, even if they appear to embrace it willingly. It seems overtime work is a KPI that is very easily observed. It is also easily monitored and tracked. And it seems to me that authoritarian leaders and those who subscribe to  X-theory of employee motivation prefer behavioural evidence of conformity and obedience like those of overtime.

We already know that productivity is inversely proportional to the amount of overtime. But productivity(or output) is harder to measure and track. Complicated by other measures such as the defect rate, accidents and other contingencies, it is not too difficult to understand why a simple observable behaviour, time at work is preferred as it is easier to measure and monitor.

Profitability is probably more closely related to real productivity than to hours of work including overtime work. Hence if productivity is not measured, a business can, in fact, be losing money in spite of increasing overtime labour.

Productivity gains can only come if top management is willing to engage with their employees, to listen to them and to meet their needs, address grievances if any, and to improve work processes so that employees will feel motivated to work better. When thus engaged, employees will go the extra mile with their leader with real productivity gains.

In the 1990s many local corporations were not that productivity oriented. Yet I observed that when a specific business unit in a local corporation where leaders are often not engaged and unsupportive, is headed by a leader who is engaged and supportive, employees in that unit are often more productive, more committed in their work and more loyal to their leader in giving of their very best.

The above was true in those days when workers are more tolerant of difficult and uncaring bosses. Today, millennial employees are not just vocal about their demand for workspace conditions, but they are more willing to vote with their feet if such demands are not met.

So whither is a consistent overtime regime to be imposed on workers? It is not only unsustainable, it is also a losing proposition.