Chinese white collar suffering 'job burnout'

08:12, September 26, 2010      

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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 douban.com.

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 peixunz.com 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


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. [China Daily]

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.

The iron rice bowl is no more.

Young professionals in China also have to face issues on marriage, family, rising property prices and long commutes to work - problems all thrown up by rapid urbanization and equally rapid social changes.

Thirty percent of the 100,000-client base that Li's company has across China complain about work-related stress and burnout. It is an unusually high rate, given that the same comparative segment in the US is only around 6 percent.

The calls come from low-and mid-level management, the people usually sandwiched between senior officers who give orders and their subordinates, whom they have to coax into productivity.

They have to deal with long working hours, low job satisfaction, little control over their role at work and even less support from senior management.

Yan observes that professionals such as teachers, nurses, lawyers and journalists experience the highest burnout rates.

"My clients include some of the best lawyers and journalists in Shanghai, who tell me they simply want to leave everything behind to travel the world," he says.

Even lawyers, normally trained to be rational and in self-control, are showing visible cracks. More are going into therapy.

Small-town scholars hitting the big time in major cities are also likely to suffer more stress. For one, they have to work harder to overcome the prejudices of locality. And in a strange city, they are often without a familiar support network.

Li Xu's company found that employees from other provinces are more likely to call the EAP hotline.

While local managers may complain about personal issues like love, marriage and family encroaching on their performances at work, the out-of-towners mostly speak of coping with pressures at the work place.

Yang Zhiying, a professor of psychology and a therapist from Capital Normal University, believes that a society changing at breakneck speed will put pressure on white-collar workers, although the burnout rate and pressure levels will depend on the resilience of individual character. It also depends on how fast people adapt to changes.

She believes that the pressure has grown dramatically with the evolution of the workplace culture. Thirty years ago, she recalls, it was "everybody eating from the same big pot" - a euphemism for equal treatment of all in the same enterprise regardless of performance. In those days, few were under pressure to stand out.

It is a different era these days when the way up means investing extra effort and putting yourself forward. Sometimes, it's a matter of the Peter Principle.

"People burn out when they are given tasks beyond their capabilities," Yang notes.

The '80s generation


Mid-career professionals caught up in the rat race are seeking help from life coaches, therapists and psychiatrists. [China Daily]

Pan Jidong has another theory. A certified EPA lecturer, Pan believes it is because they fail to make peace with themselves.

He claims that employees born during and after 1980s, the products of China's one-child policy, are generally more pampered by parents and grandparents.

They are the ones who are more likely to suffer burnout.

That is because they cannot reconcile the treatment at home with the treatment at work and when success is not theirs, they feel thwarted.

The evolving social and employment scene also opens up too many options. This may lead to an indecisiveness that may ultimately cost these young executives the competitive edge.

Pan recalled that just a decade ago when he was a senior manager at a State-owned company in Shanghai, young people appreciated their jobs more.

"They were worried, but also full of expectations," he says.

Pan lectures to help young entrants to the market realize their full potential and face the reality of knowing that success takes hard work, something that cannot be taken for granted, and does not happen overnight.

Zheng Huahui, general manager of Beijing EAP Consulting, says companies are increasingly aware of work wellness in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the recent serial suicides at the Foxconn factory and a government push for better mental health facilities for employees.

He says there is a danger period for employees who have worked between 6 to 18 months - when the novelty of the new job has worn off and the responsibilities start piling up.

Source: China Daily(By Cao Li)

(Editor:王寒露)

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