Article: How much work is too much work?

Life @ Work

How much work is too much work?

What is the '996' work schedule and why has it stirred a heated debate in China? Are there any other work schedule models that are gaining momentum elsewhere? Let's find out.
How much work is too much work?

How much is too much? Managers, leaders, experts, and employees in China were forced to ask themselves how many hours an employee should ideally work every week when a well-known entrepreneur suggested that the road to success is paved with excessive overtime at the office. Let’s take a look at the recent events, the controversial ‘996’ work schedule and the simultaneous rise of a diametrically-opposite alternative, the four-day work week.

What are 996 and 996.ICU?

A few weeks back, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, added fuel to an already divisive debate in China when he said that working overtime should be viewed as a “huge blessing” for young employees and those who want to achieve success must be willing to put in the extra time and effort. These remarks were in reference to the concept of ‘996’ – a practice of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. While the idea of ‘996’ has been prevalent in the country for some time; in the past few months, a couple of leading e-commerce websites in China has officially adopted the same. According to the labor laws in China, the maximum working hours of an employee cannot exceed more than eight hours a day, or 44 hours a week, on an average. Asian countries like China, Japan, South Korea, and India are infamous for their culture of overwork and headlines regarding employees cracking under immense work pressure are routine.

996.ICU is a response to the rising popularity of the ‘996’ culture. Set up by anonymous activists, 996.ICU is a domain that describes the dire situation wherein programmers and developers are made to work at least 60 hours a week. The ‘ICU’ is to reflect the severe health implications of such a work life and to convey that following the ‘996’ work schedule might result in employees flocking the intensive care unit (the number six rhymes with the letter ‘U’ in Mandarin, thus, making it a catchy phrase). According to the website, employees who follow the ‘996’ work schedule deserve to paid 2.275 times of their base salary, as per the law; but, employees who follow the grueling schedule hardly ever receive overtime remuneration. It is important to note that Ma isn’t the first entrepreneur to openly advocate for an intensive work week. Elon Musk tweeted in November last year, “…nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

On the other side of the world

The UK, New Zealand, and several European nations are also grappling with the challenge of defining their work week, albeit, the problem is of a different kind. There is an increasing demand to stipulate a four-day work week and slowly, but surely, the seemingly impossible concept is gaining mainstream acceptance. This demand is also supported by a growing body of research that suggests that working more number of hours isn’t necessarily equal to working better and that working a lesser number of hours is beneficial for productivity, engagement and the bottom-line. Most importantly, employers all over the world are listening carefully and taking notes.

Last year, for instance, Perpetual Guardian, a financial services firm in New Zealand, piloted the four-day work week. A subsequent study of nearly 250 employees across 16 offices found that when working 32 hours per week, the employees were 20 percent more productive, seven percent lesser stressed, had their work-life balance improve by 24 percent and the overall team engagement levels also went up by 20 percent. The company then adopted this model permanently, wherein employees have to come to work for four days and have the option to come in the fifth day if needed.  

While these might sound like isolated cases, the fact of the matter is that the concept of the four-day work week has gained a strong foothold in the discourse of the future of work. A few months ago, the Japanese government piloted a program that allowed employees to take first Monday morning of the month off, in a bid to help them improve their abysmal work-life balance. This is in addition to the already-existing program wherein employees are encouraged to take Fridays off. However, the adoption of the program by companies has been rather dismal owing to Japan’s powerfully prevalent culture of overwork. Even experts at the 2019 World Economic Forum made a compelling case for a four-day work week. UK’s Trades Union Congress, a coalition of some of the largest employee unions in the country, has been at the forefront of this debate as it presented a report last year calling for a universal four-day work week and strongly condemned employers who expect their employees to be available 24X7. The report argued that employees must also benefit from the advancement in technology by working lesser, as has been the norm in previous industrial revolutions.

Are we ready for a four-day work week in India?

As per a global survey by Kronos Incorporated conducted in 2018, India had one of the hardest working workforces wherein 69 percent of the Indian respondents stated that they would prefer working five days per week, even if they had the option to work fewer days at the same pay. The survey also revealed that nearly 44 percent of the respondents clocked more than 40 hours each week – the second highest.

It is no secret that the Indian workforce works exceptionally hard and the country’s IT industry, which employs over 10 million people, is not known for offering its employees a work-life balance. However, as Indian employers realize the importance of helping their employees maintain a healthy work-life balance, they are at least beginning to embrace the five-day work week wholeheartedly. Megha Sharma, Senior HR Manager at FabHotels, says, “A six-day work week hardly leaves any time to rejuvenate as Sundays are often cramped with running personal errands or attending social events. That means when employees turn up to work on a Monday morning, they haven’t really had a chance to refresh themselves.” FabHotels has made Saturdays off for all non-essential personnel from this financial year onward.

So, to answer the question, are we ready for a four-day work week in India just yet? To put it bluntly, no, we are not.  

As we step into the future of work and prepare ourselves for the modern workplace, it is crucial that we hold these conversations and involve as many diverse stakeholders as possible…

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Topics: Life @ Work

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