Alibaba boss Jack Ma, the richest man in China, recently said that China’s “996" work practice—9am to 9pm, six days a week—is “a great blessing". He was supported by fellow tech billionaires Richard Liu of e-commerce giant JD.com, and Zhou Hongyi of internet security firm Qihoo 360, who said that striking the right work-life balance was impossible.

Chinese companies are hardly alone in pushing their workers to work longer. Uber allegedly had an internal mantra: “Work smarter, harder and longer" (it’s now just “smarter" and “harder"). Elon Musk of Tesla famously tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week". The correct number of hours “varies per person", he said, but is “about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times". In a 2016 interview, the then boss of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, said that working 130 hours a week was possible “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom".

In 2016, official Chinese TV network CCTV reported that every year, 600,000 Chinese succumb to guolaosi—death by overwork. CCTV put it down to fierce competition forcing many millennials to work superhuman hours for income and career advancement. Though Chinese labour laws stipulate a 44-hour working week, in many companies, employees who do not work overtime are derided as “slackers". Most Chinese tech giants implement the 996 system.

But even if thousands of young staffers die, it would make no difference to billionaires and their financiers. They would simply be replaced by another horde of millennial lemmings. And Ma would keep getting richer. Musk stands to earn upward of $50 billion if Tesla meets certain performance levels, so getting his people to work till they drop benefits him immensely. Mayer got Yahoo staffers to work their butts off, but failed to revive the company, while being the world’s highest-paid woman CEO. Most of Yahoo was finally sold off. Mayer quit, but is today worth an estimated $600 million.

And, while a Harvard Business School study found that American CEOs work an average of 62.5 hours a week, far less than what they expect from employees, they have managed to sell the “slog glamour" spiel very well. A 2017 study by Harvard professor Anat Keinan found that “a busy and overworked lifestyle… has become an aspirational status symbol…The positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce".

But what CEOs mysteriously ignore is that research has repeatedly proved that overworking employees does not help businesses. A 2014 Stanford University study showed that after about 48 hours a week, a worker’s output drops sharply. A 2004 US government report said that work beyond nine hours a day is associated with decreased alertness, increased fatigue and lower cognitive function. A 2007 US government study estimated that fatigue-related lost productive time of workers was costing US businesses $100 billion annually. Then why do CEOs drive their staff so hard? Power trip? Insecurity? Maybe we need some studies on that.

In the meantime, CEOs could learn from Henry Ford. In 1914, Ford introduced a minimum wage of $5 per day in Ford Motor Company, more than doubling the wages for most employees, and reduced the worker’s shift to eight hours from nine. Ford was not being altruistic, though that was the message sent out to the world, earning him and his company enormous goodwill. Through this move, he reduced the company’s high turnover rate and retained its best employees. Production jumped and costs of hiring new employees, including training costs, fell, offsetting the higher wage bill. And the salary raise provided employees enough money to buy Ford cars, which increased sales.

And now, the bad news for millennials burning the midnight oil for salary and career bonanzas. Ma said he supports 996 because people who work longer get the “rewards of hard work". Not true. A US National Bureau of Economic Research study released this month finds that a 10% increase in hours is associated with 1% lower hourly wages. “Even accounting for measurement error, wages tend to be only weakly related to hours worked," say the researchers.

In fact, a 2018 study using data from 36 European countries found that excessive work effort leads to unfavourable career outcomes. Overtime reduces day-to-day recovery, while high work intensity—the effort one puts into work—reduces opportunities for recovery during the day. This lack of recovery accumulates and ultimately decreases one’s ability to deliver quality work. And your boss is not pleased.

So, ambitious millennials ruin their mental and physical health, dreaming of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—and some of them even believe it’s cool to do so. Sure, there’s a pot of gold there; in fact, it’s being constantly replaced with bigger ones, but for the vast majority of toilers, the pot has only the owners’ and their financiers’ names engraved on it.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines

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