The pros and cons of 996: Is it worth it?

By Robert Half on 21 May 2021

Hard work and long hours have been the standard in Chinese working culture, recently put back into the spotlight by recent comments made by self-made billionaire Jack Ma.

Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba - and frequently topping lists of the world’s wealthiest people - has long endorsed the controversial Chinese ‘996’ work practice. The moniker refers to the 12 hour work day from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is common particularly in the tech sector and start-ups, but seen in every level of every industry.

Employees who work long hours, said Ma, will get the “rewards of hard work.” After all, he argued, “how do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”

Ma was clear: his employees at Alibaba are not required to work 12-hour shifts. However, equally apparent was his opinion of employees that were working the legally required eight hour shifts: “Why bother joining? We don’t lack those who work eight hours comfortably.”

Benefits of working overtime

There’s a fine line between putting in overtime hours, and overworking.

Chinese labour laws have standardised the working week in China as an eight-hour day, or 44 hours a week. Any additional work is then classified as overtime, and cannot be imposed without staff consultation.

But the fact is: when an entire working culture normalises working overtime, it’s difficult to succeed when not performing at the same standard. Simply put, working the standard eight-hour shift is not going to make anyone stand out. And in an increasingly competitive workplace, any edge over the competition is going to be beneficial, especially in a culture that prioritises hard work and sacrifice like the Chinese.

Further, employees generally benefit from:

  • Overtime pay - usually a minimum of 150% the hourly rate at which the employee is paid, and more on weekends or public holidays.
  • Increased productivity - Longer working hours provide more opportunity to get things done. After all, as Elon Musk (entrepreneur, engineer, and founder of automotive giant Tesla) said, “no one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.

Disadvantages of the 996 model

However, the Chinese government has recently criticised the 996 model, with state-run newspaper the People’s Daily writing “The mandatory enforcement of 996 overtime culture not only reflects the arrogance of business managers, but also is unfair and impractical.”

Ma’s comments come at a time when more millennials entering the workforce are prioritising work-life balance. The 996 model has seen much backlash as a result, with many choosing to seek employment elsewhere. This has resulted in a high rate of employee turnover: a worrying, expensive trend.

And while it may be that some inherently motivated members of society - like the Jack Mas and Elon Musks of the world - enjoy and benefit from working such long hours, much of the research on the effects of working overtime hours is clear: mentally, physically, and emotionally, overtime like this won’t benefit most people.

It is a phenomenon associated with high levels of stress and anxiety, sleep deprivation (and therefore, increased fatigue), long-term drops in productivity, and lower cognitive function. For the companies that participate in a culture that prizes overtime, such as those who maintain the 996 model, the result of an overworked workforce can be costly: an unhappy, unhealthy, less productive community has been known to cost companies millions.

So in order to keep productivity at a high constant, health-related costs down, and employees that are happy to come in to work, companies should seek instead to prioritise a work-life balance for their employees. Ultimately, the decision to participate in the 996 model should be up to the individual; only they know their abilities and limitations, and who knows, they might just be the next Jack Ma.

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