I have been intrigued by the recent conversations on the 996 work culture (work 9 to 9 for 6 days a week), which have been publicly endorsed by Jack Ma and apparently a norm in many Chinese companies. Within China itself, there has been resistance to the 996 work culture and recently anonymous activists put up a webpage 996.icu (icu for intensive care unit) on GitHub, listing companies which promoted a 996 culture. But the challenge of 996 is not restricted to China alone, but is a much wider phenomena.
The thrust on giving your life to work, if you want to succeed can at times have disastrous implications as indicated in the following incident. “Bank intern who died after 'working for 72 hours' felt pressure to excel. An intern who died after allegedly working for 72 hours straight at a leading City bank had admitted that he felt “pressurised” to succeed.” These are the headlines of The Telegraph, London, 20th August 2013 sharing the story of a young intern who felt compelled to ‘over-work’ in a global & well known bank, resulting in the snuffing of a young, ambitious & precious life.
While the above may be an isolated incident, in most cases the damage of a 996 culture on employees is more gradual yet with equally devastating implications on their physical and mental health. A 2016 Work & Well Being survey done by American Psychological Association reported that one in three employees reported being ‘chronically’ stressed on the job. A November 2018 report by Korn Ferry Institute highlights that two-thirds of the professionals surveyed, indicated that their stress levels at work are higher than they were five years ago.
Some business leaders take the financial concept of ‘sweating your assets’ a bit too far by extending it to their employees who they consider as human assets which need to be sweated. This results in a 996 culture where they want their employees to have no life except a work life. Excuse me, but isn’t that akin to ‘slavery’ albeit in air-conditioned environments with loads of free coffee to keep the ‘slaves’ going. I am not at all dissuading from the concept of working hard, but rather than working hard just for your organization, I encourage employees to work hard for their own life. While I endorse the old saying ‘there is no substitute for hard work’, the interpretation needs to expand beyond the strait-jacketed concept of just your job.
My call to working professionals of our time is to create an 8585 lifestyle for themselves. Work productively for 8 hours for 5 days a week; sleep well for 8 hours every day; and the balance hours focus on 5 other life priorities.
8 hours of productive work day: Too often the chimera that more work gets done in 12 hours of a work day misleads leaders & organizations. ‘Work expands to the time available’ is a well-known management adage, which turns out to be true as very often employees end up spending extra hours at work because they are caught up in doing non-productive work. Whether it is long-winded meetings, resolving conflicts in matrix structures, limited autonomy to enable their performance outcomes, dealing with ineffective bosses who operate like toxic task masters – all non-productive work resulting in extra hours at work. Organizations should focus on how to create a work culture and work systems, which enable employees to be focused & fully productive for 8 hours of work. ‘Simplify work by cutting the waste from work’ is something many organizations can benefit from. Employees themselves must build the discipline of avoiding distractions of social media & WhatsApp while at work, to ensure that they give 8 hours of productive work for 5 days a week. Of course there may be certain business situations where employees may have to put in those extra hours, whether it is an unexpected crisis or a new product launch, however these exigencies have to be the exception and not the norm.
8 hours of good sleep every day: Sleep hardly appears in the lexicon of CEOs and CHROs while they are crafting a work culture. As organizations become more global, employees are called upon to take red eye flights or participate in global calls which extend beyond midnight – all leading to an ongoing sleep deficit. A December 2014 article by Sloan MIT titled ‘Why sleep is a strategic resource’ (https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-sleep-is-a-strategic-resource/) outlines very aptly that sleep deprivation can affect work performance negatively. Needless to add quantity of sleep and quality of sleep are both important to rejuvenate the body and the mind. The same Sloan MIT article outlines that while individual sleep needs vary, adults typically need 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night. A McKinsey research of 2016 shows a direct correlation between ‘good sleep’ and performance behaviour such as results orientation, solving problems, seeking different perspectives, supporting others. (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-organizational-cost-of-insufficient-sleep). There is enough science & research for you as an employee to aspire for 8 hours of good quality sleep on most days and for organizations’ to not take sleep lightly any more.
5 Life Priorities: For the balance hours available, professional could focus on 5 Life Priorities which would help in creating a holistic focus on their life.
- Health & Wellness - Employees must pay conscious attention to their physical and mental well-being, both of which require nurturing rather than neglect. Many organisations do encourage physical wellness by having an on campus gymnasium or sporting activities or tie ups with external service providers. The need of the hour is also focus on mental wellness. Chuck Robbins, CEO of CISCO is a shining example of how he brought mental wellness on the organizational agenda by directly sending out multiple emails to his employees on the subject of mental health & why it needs to be priority for his employees. Employees need to set aside time for activities like meditation, yoga, tai-chi, physical activities, to nurture their mental & physical health.
- Family & Friends - In a digital world full of social media connects, employees need to create an oasis of actual physical interaction with their circle of family & friends. Employees should remember that attending the PTA meeting at your little daughter’s school is as important as attending the Management team meeting where you have been invited to make a presentation. Spending quality time with your loved ones, as well as regularly meeting your close friends gives more fulfillment and enables a support network which can nourish you during tough times.
- Pursue a Passion - When an employee pursues her passion, it can be useful for her in clearing up the mind, enabling creativity and creating a higher sense of gratification. A CNBC article of Aug 2017 mentions that having a hobby outside of work could help you perform better 9 – 5, the same article also quotes a research study which found that engaging in a hobby / leisure activity can provide immediate stress relief and leads to sustained happiness. Mark Zuckerberg is a big proponent of professionals pursuing a passion or hobby outside their job role, he leads by example by pursuing an idea of passion every year. Don’t fool yourself by saying that you will focus on your passion once you have reached the top rung of your career or worst, when you retire. Please also don’t fall in the trap of saying ‘my work is my passion’ – because that makes you a one trick pony. You are more gifted than you think & the time to discover & pursue your passion is now!
- Spirituality - Many of us, as we were growing through our teens, had our parents encouraging us to pay attention to our spirituality by regularly praying, but most of us (including me) ignored their advice. Then when some management guru promoted the concept of Spirituality Quotient we happily spent $50 to buy the book and follow the fad. Spirituality is not a fad, but is perhaps the most integral part of human life for a foundation of peace & gratification. Keeping some time aside for your God, can be a good investment and the ROI can be immense.
- Giving - There is a Chinese saying that goes “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” I keep reiterating in my blogs the need for employees to give back to the community. An article by University of Berkeley builds a strong case for the benefits of giving to the giver, which includes better health & positive emotions through a concept known as the ‘helper’s high’. The Persian poet Rumi writes, that a man walks past a man in poverty, looks up and asks God “Why, God, do you not do something for these people ?” God replies “I did do something. I made you”. Take some time out to give back to the community, to your nation, to the under privileged, whether it is your talent, your time, your money or a combination of all 3, but let Giving be a key life priority for you.
As much as I have tried to put the case for adopting a 8585 lifestyle and shunning a 996 lifestyle, the jury is still out whether :
- Organizations can build a successful business model with the core of 8585 for their employees.
- Employees genuinely want an 8585 lifestyle for themselves and are willing to do something about it.
But then, it does not matter what others want, what matters is whether you would like to pursue an 8585 lifestyle for yourself and do you think your organization will support you for the same? After all, you are the CEO of your life!
Do send in your views through the comment section below.