The richest man in China is wrong

  • Working nonstop hurts employees as well as the managers who praise the culture of overwork.

Apr 23, 2019-

Jack Ma, the richest man in China and founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, is a big fan of extreme overwork. He recently praised China’s “996” practice, which refers to those who put in 12-hour days—9 a.m. to 9 p.m.—six days a week. This “is not a problem,” he said in a recent blog post, instead calling it a “blessing.”

The response from others in China was swift. “If all enterprises enforce a 996 schedule, no one will have children,” one person argued on the same platform. “Did you ever think about the elderly at home who need care, the children who need company?” It even prompted a response from Chinese state media, which reminded everyone, “The mandatory enforcement of 996 overtime culture not only reflects the arrogance of business managers, but also is unfair and impractical.”

Managers who think like Ma can be found the world over. Here at home, Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla, has argued that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Uber reportedly used to use the internal mantra “Work smarter, harder and longer.” (It’s now just “smarter” and “harder.”) The company has also rebranded second jobs as clever “side hustles.” WeWork decorates its coworking spaces with phrases like, “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you are done.” Other tech and business gurus try to sell us on “toil glamour.”

The truth is that they’re all wrong. Workers certainly suffer when forced to put in extreme hours. But business fares just as poorly. No one benefits from people pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion.

One of the reasons Ma said he supports 996 culture is people who work longer get the “rewards of hard work.” But they are apparently not in store for monetary rewards: A group of academics just released research finding that working longer hours than someone else in the same job doesn’t earn you more money; instead, it leads to a 1% decrease in wages. Another analysis similarly found that after 40 hours a week, there isn’t a clear financial return to clocking more hours. Excessive work effort has even been linked, perversely, to worse career outcomes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned that putting in extra hours is associated with poorer health, including weight gain and higher alcohol and tobacco use, and increased injury, illness and even mortality. Health researchers have found that overwork is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

Ma went so far in his post as to say that those who aren’t willing to put in such long hours need not apply to work at Alibaba. He’s only shooting himself in the foot.

There’s a ceiling on how much more someone can get done by simply spending more time at work. After about 48 hours a week, a worker’s output drops sharply, according to a Stanford economist. Other research has appeared to support this finding. While there might be an initial burst of activity from overworking, people who work more than 55 hours a week perform worse than those who go home at a normal hour and get some rest.

There are other costs to employers. An elder-care facility in Sweden that tried a six-hour workday reportedly found that nurses took fewer sick days and were more productive. Fatigued workers cost employers $100 billion in lost productivity.

This all became obvious to the U.S. business community long ago. As strong unions pushed for a 40-hour workweek in the 1800s, business leaders who acquiesced found that their companies became significantly more profitable and productive. In 1914, Henry Ford took the lessons of these natural experiments to heart and cut shifts in his plants to eight hours without reducing pay, leading to an output boom. By 1938, that 40-hour workweek was enshrined into law by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires time-and-a-half pay beyond that.

The strength of the law has been whittled away over recent decades, however, to the point that millions fewer Americans are guaranteed extra pay for extra work than in 1979. That allows employers to push more employees to put in more hours essentially free. President Barack Obama proposed an update in 2016 that would have offered new or strengthened overtime protection to more than 13 million workers; it was struck down by the courts, and President Donald Trump’s version, proposed in March, will help 8.2 million fewer workers, thanks to a lower salary threshold and a failure to index it to inflation.

Business leaders seem to have forgotten the lessons they learned in the past: Humane schedules benefit employee and employer alike. China might have its 996 culture, but the United States doesn’t fare much better. Nearly a third of us put in 45 hours or more each week, while nearly 10 million clock 60 or more. The average European puts in between 7% and 19% less time on the job.

Policies like a strong overtime rule can help us return to a world where everyone does better by working less. Business leaders like Jack Ma have to get with the program, too. Glorifying those who sacrifice nearly all of their waking hours at the altar of work harms everyone, from the CEO to the custodian.

- BRYCE COVERT

— © 2019 The New York Times

Published: 23-04-2019 11:05

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