China Work-Life Imbalance; Married to the Job?

China Work-Life Balance

Despite all the entrepreneurial advancement of recent years, in which people balance both work and life; better yet, integrate the two; mental and physical health is still on the decline. Advocates of work-life integration say it is now harder than ever to draw a clear line in the sand between work and life.

So what say the East? Are Asian countries experiencing a similar kind of work-related health decline? Are they too seeking ways in which to integrate the making of happiness and money? Thoughts therefore go out to fortune 500 companies such as Chinese mobile phone giant, the never-far-from-the-headlines Huawei, known for their tough competitive “Wolf Culture”. 

To get a better understanding of where Chinese worker bees are at on the balancing scale, The Nanjinger spoke with two Huawei employees and surveyed local professionals from a variety of other companies and professions. We wanted to know if Wolf Culture is one of the driving forces behind big company success in China and how it effects the health and happiness Chinese employees. 

Ex-Huawei HQ staff member, Zhou Yi (pseudonym), worked with the company for 13 years before he was laid off. Prior to working with Huawei, Zhou worked as an engineer at multiple state and privately owned technology companies in Nanjing. At the beginning of his Huawei career, training was just as intensive as it is now; “I remember that the training was not relaxed. For instance I had to take part in many exams which included a salesman training camp, professional knowledge training, even etiquette training and an internship drill”, he said.

Wolf Culture encourages staff to compete with one another on a “kill or be killed” basis. “Those people who are fit for this kind of culture will get promoted. In the majority of situations, you are not welcome back if you leave Huawei. A label of ‘loser’ would be put onto those people who had been ‘killed’”, commented Zhou. “If I had problems, I would approach my friends; I didn’t trust my coworkers very much.” 

According to an article by Sup China detailing the differences between the inner workings of Lenovo and Huawei, staff have been asked to sign “striver agreements” that waive employees’ rights to claim annual leave or overtime pay. “I voluntarily signed a striver agreement when I was with Huawei”, Zhou told The Nanjinger. “And when I quit, I didn’t receive any compensation. … If you want to work with Huawei, you must adapt to this working culture asap if you want to make any money”, he exclaimed.

Chinese chairmen have a reputation for setting what the West has criticised as “unrealistic targets”. This puts immense pressure on all levels of staff. In China, if these targets are met, people are rewarded with handsome bonuses and recognition for hard work, but to what extent does this environment impact the individual? “I had no choice. Generally, I spent much more time in work rather than in life”, admits Zhou. 

The Chinese workforce appears to be at a stage in its development where it is simply happy to have a job and to be earning big money; happiness is secondary to money. From those who earn and play big to those who grind hard for a comfortable urban life, to those who really struggle to make ends meet and resent their bosses, many are suspicious that the Chinese working force is scarily headed towards the model exemplified by their Japanese neighbours.  

From the 1950s, the Japanese worked themselves toward being world’s largest economy. Instilling along the way company cultures of unbreakable loyalty and fierce competition, leaving the individual out of the equation, it was the company as a whole that became most important. Under this kind of environment who would want to be the first to leave the office or the last to arrive? In a survey into work-life balance, Japanese employees even admitted to feeling guilty for taking paid holidays; on average leaving 10 days of paid holiday untaken per year. 

Back in China, Zhou continued, “As a Chinese employee at Huawei, I often worked 9 to 9, Monday to Friday. But when I was traveling [for work] sometimes I had to burn the midnight oil, so to speak. … I didn’t have any annual leave and if an employee would use too many sick days, that person would get investigated by human resources. If you performed well you would be allotted some stock shares, and be given a pay raise or a promotion. Awards for your outstanding achievements are also given. If you made a mistake at work, you would get a bad performance assessment. A bad appraisal could affect you for the next 3 years.”

With regard to the personal lives of those at Huawei, Zhou, who is now divorced, comments, “I only spent time with my family during the national holidays and I never traveled, or did anything recreational for that matter. … If someone were to have told me at the time I worked for Huawei that I was ‘married to my job’ I would have agreed with them.”

Zhou’s loyalty to the company stopped dead when he was laid off due to what he says was a conspiracy against him. “There is a black list that is used to lay off the older employees. Once you get on it, you have no chance to transfer to other positions. This is a policy that can’t be said frankly”, Zhou told The Nanjinger.  “My English was not good enough [for overseas work]. And even though I had just renewed my 4 year contract with the company, I had become a scapegoat.” 

If this leaves readers thinking Huawei to be more like Hellwei; a place no person would consider working, The Nanjinger sought out a more current employee. “I trust my colleagues. … It’s hard to work together if you don’t!” Huawei employee, data engineer, Cheng Yin (pseudonym), laughed when I spoke of my impressions of Hellwei. 

Cheng is outsourced by a third company, and admits that in addition to taking courses for months at a time and preparing for presentations and tests, new recruits must go through many rounds of interviews, including a psychological test. 

After speaking with Cheng, I got the feeling that changes have been made within the company which better supports the individual, rather than the company as a whole. “Huawei does have a Wolf Culture but I think it’s just a way to describe the spirit of the company”, she said. 

Cheng told The Nanjinger that she has never experienced any exclusion from other members of staff, nor has she been made to succumb to “unrealistic” target setting by bosses. “I believe the company wants to keep us hungry for knowledge. This includes both in our own field and outside. Worries and doubts are always welcome and we have a public platform for debate and any ideas we have for the company.”

“It is very sensitive to always ask for days off”, Cheng admits. “People choose to work under intense pressure for a period of time and accumulate some fortune for their future development, [I think this] is reasonable. I don’t think people would agree to work like this always. After all, the money is not yours until you spend it.”

The Chinese have a saying, “过劳死” (death by overwork). While the country’s working culture is far less rigid and more relaxed in comparison to Japan, the worry comes as they overtake America as the world’s largest economy; are they headed down the same road?

Cheng went on, “For me, life is short and life is too much to give up. I believe this [lack of work-life balance] is true though for some employees especially facing so much life pressure to buy a house in China and make a good living. Many companies have no ability to provide handsome payrolls for their dedicated workers, but we (Huawei) do. For top experts in certain fields we have no upper limits in terms of bonus. Every month we have meetings about employees’ performance and we have little bonuses for everyone who makes progress.”

I needed convincing that Huawei really does consider the human side of their employees. “I’m definitely not married to my job! I regularly see my friends and family and have plenty of time for outdoor or extra activities. I often cook; I love cooking because it tastes much better than most of the restaurants. It’s much more healthy and cheaper than eating outside. I go to the gym three times a week and attend a yoga class”, she told me. 

We spoke about the differences between Western working experiences, compared with those of Asia, discussing the differences in labour laws, rights, needs and wants of workers and employees. “I believe western companies have a much more relaxing working environment, in terms of relationships with management. This is a cultural difference”, said Cheng. 

What of work-life balance for other Nanjing locals? The Nanjinger turned to the Internet to conduct a survey of employees from a variety of professions and corporations. 

Judging from the answers received, something needs to be done to further satisfy work-life balance. I am told “Westerners are lazy” and “the Chinese people have no choice but to work hard”, but now I know that what the younger Chinese generation feel on the inside is something very different. 

Over half the people The Nanjinger surveyed said their job satisfaction could be better and that they receive no emotional support for private matters. 42 percent of people admitted that their boss will scream and shout at them for making mistakes and 31 percent have been asked to sign striver agreements. Over half are likely to quit after just 2 years and over 70 percent say they are expected to socialise with other colleagues and their boss after work. Most worrying of all, 10 percent say their working life has begun to affect their mental health. 

The majority of Chinese are likely to agree that if you want to have a good life, then you need to work very hard. I have been told that they are not well off enough, at the moment. The idea of a work-life balance is understood, even sought after to some degree or another, but to the majority it is scoffed at as just another idealistic Western desire for pleasure over pain. 

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Renée Gray Beaumont
As an Australian journalist living in Nanjing for many years, Renée Gray Beaumont has a background in research, print and online publishing, taking great pleasure in discovering more about Nanjing with every article. 作为在南京居住多年的澳大利亚新闻工作者,Renee Gray Beaumont 有着调研以及印刷品和线上出版物的工作背景。她总是乐于在每篇文章里发现关于南京的内容。