Chinese white collar burnout

16:57, September 27, 2010      

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Young executives under pressure are finding new ways to let off steam - like this pillow-bashing party for more than 1,000 white-collar workers. (Gao Erqiang / China Daily)

As China rockets towards its inevitable position as a financial and political giant, it has an almost vertical learning curve in bridging the gap between old work cultures and the demanding new pace. Cao Li looks at the casualty rates among China's upwardly mobile.

As another fat file lands on her desk, Wang Yan takes a deep breath and tries to calm her growing agitation. Fatigue shows in her eyes. As an attorney in a US law firm in Shanghai, Wang works approximately 3,000 hours a year, which translates to 375 days on the job if it is averaged out to 8-hour days. That's 10 more days than she has time for. "I can never catch up. Before one case is completed, my boss loads me with three more,?says the 28-year-old from Fujian province, who graduated with a law degree from the United States. We did not use her real name as she insisted on anonymity.

"I wake up every morning, thinking about quitting."

She would complain to her friends, who are also highly educated and like her, professionals in mid-career. They belong to the generation most people believe is reaping the benefits of three decades of rapid economic growth.

But these elite members of China's new class of upwardly mobile are feeling the strain. Even as they strive to clamber up the corporate ladder, many are so drained by the effort that they are burning out.

There are more depressed professionals than it appears on the surface, and they make themselves heard on online forums and bulletin boards such as

Here, dozens of groups have been created to talk about giving up jobs in pursuit of "freedom".

The most popular has nearly 40,000 members. Some advocate "dropping out of school and quitting your job to travel" while others proclaim, "a monster called 'job' was born to devour souls but the most important job is to find oneself."

Statistics find a shockingly high proportion of employees suffering "job burnout", a term coined in the 1960s from the Graham Greene novel A Burnt-Out Case. It is now defined as a "psychological condition of emotional exhaustion and reduced sense of personal accomplishment".

The website did an online survey on career development last year. Out of 1,697 office workers polled, 74.6 percent say they are suffering from burnout. About 10.8 percent describe their conditions as "serious".

Yan Zhengwei, a therapist at the Wales Psychological Clinic based in Shanghai, has seen more and more exhausted professionals coming to him in recent years.

They are usually the elite of society and they know it. While losing interest in their work, they also face the dilemma of not knowing what else can interest them, according to Yan.

He believes the root of the problem is pressure.

Employee assistance

Li Xu, medical director of Beijing Psychen-Chestnut Global Partners Inc, believes fierce competition in today's business environment is turning the screw on mid-level employees.

Young professionals just starting out and eager to make their marks are also more likely to be on the receiving end.

Li's company provides employee assistance programs (EAP) aimed at helping employees deal with personal problems that may impact their work performance, health and well-being. The consultants give group lectures and also conduct one-to-one therapy sessions.

He says pressure at work has grown in tandem with competitiveness in the market. More employers are now aware of the problems and consequential threats and investing in EAP services.

It is obvious the problem has become serious enough for employers to take active steps. But it was not always so.

"In 1990s, an Australian company became the first in China to provide such services, but it soon closed because of the lack of demand," Li says.

It was a different scenario then. A decade ago, many businesses were still in a fledging stage and employees enjoyed both better welfare and clearly marked career paths.

But as businesses matured and market forces started to work, mergers and acquisitions have made employment less secure.
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