July 1, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Chinese face epidemic of stress-related deaths from work

Chinese banking regulator Li Jianhua literally worked himself to death. After 26 years of “always putting the cause of the party and the people” first, his employer said this month, the 48-year-old official died rushing to finish a report before the sun came up.

China is facing an epidemic of overwork, to hear the state-controlled press and Chinese social media tell it. About 600,000 Chinese a year die from working too hard, according to the China Youth Daily. China Radio International in April reported a toll of 1,600 every day.

Microblogging website Weibo is filled with complaints about stressed-out lives and chatter about reports of others, young and old, worked to death: a 24-year-old junior employee at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Inc.; a 25-year-old auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP; one of the chief designers of China’s next-generation fighter planes at state-run AVIC Shenyang Aircraft Corp.

“What’s the point of working overtime so you can work to death?” asked one commentator on Weibo, lamenting that his boss told employees to spend more time on the job.

The rising death rate comes as China’s workforce appears to be getting the upper hand, with a shrinking labor pool able to demand higher wages and factory workers regularly going on strike. The message hasn’t gotten through to China’s white-collar warriors. In exchange for starting salaries typically double blue-collar pay, they put in hours of overtime on top of eight-hour workdays, often in violation of Chinese labor law, according to Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group the China Labour Bulletin.

“China is still a rising economy, and people are still buying into that hardworking ethos,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University in Tokyo. “They haven’t yet achieved the affluenza that led to questioning in Japan of norms and values.”

Japan is where the term karoshi, or death from overwork, gained notoriety in previous decades. It encompasses deaths from stroke, heart attack, cerebral hemorrhage or other sudden causes related to demands of the workplace. Because the causal relationship to work-related stress may not be evident, the death toll can be subjective and difficult to compile.

In China, such deaths are known as guolaosi.

“We have noticed that excessive overtime in China has become an issue,” the director of the International Labour Organization’s China office, Tim De Meyer, wrote in an emailed response to questions. “It is worrying as a physical and mental-health hazard.”

Work-life balance gets short shrift in a society that combines a modern pursuit of riches with an ancient belief in putting the community above the individual, said Yang Heqing, Dean of the School of Labor Economics at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. In parts of China’s capital he’s surveyed, 60 percent of workers complain of clocking more than the legal limit of two hours a day of overtime, taking a toll on workers’ family and health, he said. He’s skeptical of the 600,000 figure, which he said may include other causes, and is working to compile his own data.

“More than in the Anglo-American corporate system, in Korea, China and Japan — the countries of the Confucian belt — there’s a belief in total dedication,” said Temple University’s Kingston. “Any job worth doing is worth doing excessively.”

Monday, Chinese bloggers on Weibo were sharing the reported death in Taiwan of overwork by text message. The family of a 40-year-old woman was awarded compensation after a court ruled that late-night, work-related text messaging contributed to her fatal stroke, according to the China Times.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers auditor in Shanghai had chronicled on her personal blog working through weekends, wanting a vacation and suffering fevers, according to official news agency Xinhua. A colleague in the Beijing office said employees were given tasks “impossible to finish without overtime,” as the case drew more than 30,000 comments on Weibo from users attributing her death to overwork, Xinhua reported.

A statement by PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time of her 2011 death said that Angela Pan, a first-year associate, had contracted encephalitis and had taken sick leave to check into a hospital where she later died, according to spokesman Wayne Yim, who said the firm didn’t have further comment on the case.