Stress among managers in China is mounting, even causing deaths at work. What is pushing them to the brink?
These days, Brian Dong is crying out for a vacation. The stress of running a startup company in China’s finance industry is threatening to overwhelm him. Too bad he does not have the time.
As the CEO of an Australian foreign exchange trading company, he has a laundry list of tasks and roles, from dealing with hundreds of emails every day, reporting to the board and investors to giving directions to his employees.
“From the moment I get into the office till the time my head hits the pillow, I’ve worked almost 15 hours a day,” the 30-year-old executive says. “I should take some time off before I burn out.”
Like Dong, many business leaders in China are saddled with enormous pressures. But stress among senior executives is often not discussed in the corporate world, where working 80 to 100 hours a week is the norm.
China Daily found out, however, that stress and problems related to high stress are more common and serious than many employers are willing to admit. Sixty percent of business executives in China say they have seen their stress increase in 2011, according to Grant Thornton, an international business research accounting firm.
The number is 28 percent higher than the average stress level around the world and the second-highest after Greece, which is currently under a deep depression with 67 percent of senior executives admitting a spike in stress levels.
Jonathan Geldart, the global head of marketing and communications at Grant Thornton International Ltd, says the problem is getting serious and sometimes dangerous because stress can force business leaders to make decisions too quickly or worst of all, take the wrong direction.
“Eventually it can affect the profitability of a company or even bankrupt it if the stress is not managed because you are stressed and you don’t look thoughtfully at all of the issues,” he says. Geldart says there is more pressure on the Chinese government to fix the nation’s ills.
“The Chinese government is clamping down on many aspects of business corruption in particular, in taxation, in improving the accounting standards and in encouraging people to go overseas, so the pressure is rising. And the economy is not doing as well as it used to. So there is a higher pressure in China than other places.”
The American Institute of Stress estimates that American companies lose over $300 billion every year due to stress and stress-related diseases such as absences, exhaustion and mental health problems.
According to RMG International, a recruitment consultancy in Beijing, work pressure costs Chinese businesses more than $100 million each year.
A recent example of what stress can do in China happened earlier this month. A 25-year-old employee of Kingsoft, a software company in Beijing, died at his desk after spending the night in the office. The company denied that too much work contributed to the tragedy.
In recent months, unexplainable deaths have been more common in financial sector.
In May, a 34-year-old senior manager in the legal department of CITIC Securities, China’s largest listed securities company by total market value, died of cerebral hemorrhage. The death triggered a heated public discussion with many saying that the death resulted from the manager being overworked.
Experts say several of the deaths are closely related to being overworked as well as intense pressure from peers, the fear of “losing face” and unrealistic business expectations in the workplace.
Mike Thompson, a professor of management practice at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says that in China there is a great amount of pressure on an individual to be seen as successful among peers.
Robert Parkinson, CEO and founder of RMG, says that money leads to pressures to live a prestigious life, to have a nice apartment, to join a nice club and to marry a pretty girl.
“People are fearful of losing their position in society or lose their money when they become rich,” he says. “In China 40 or 50 years ago, people were concerned about whether they had have enough to eat or if they had enough basic things.
But as China has rapidly expanded its economy with the huge level of disposable income available to the people, things have changed. This competition to have more things in life will never end if your only value is money.”
The increasing desire for luxury goods is an apt explanation of why people seemed more stressed in China than in other countries.
Here, people are trying to live up to a social status they’ve created for themselves.
All about face
One of the results from the Grant Thornton survey is that business people in the United Kingdom and France have the lowest stress levels in the world.
Thompson, who was born in the UK and has been working in China for more than three years, says one of the causes of lower stress levels in the workplace in the UK is directly connected with humor or wit that works as a relief to stress. He says it’s a very common factor across all UK workplaces.
“It is more acceptable and more usual to use and express humor at the expense of someone else in the UK than in other places, particularly in China,” he says. “Humor can lower stress because the use of humor actually allows a person to more fully disclose who they really are.”
But Parkinson says in China, people care most about losing face. “What does losing face mean? It means looking stupid,” he says.
“In my interpretation, people in China care very much about what people think of them and that causes lots of stress. In fast-moving competitive working environments, you can have conflicts and misunderstandings very easily.”
Oliver Barron, the head of the Beijing division of NSBO China, a UK-based Chinese government policy investment research firm, says the Chinese concept of losing face makes managing workers very difficult. Losing face is another source of pressure for many foreign managers in China.
Experts say that a heavy workload and high expectations are two major sources of stress for senior managers.
According to the report by Grant Thornton, 24 percent of respondents from China believe their stress stems from the pursuit of business goals, while 20 percent of the respondents reported difficulties in finding a work-life balance.
“I think the expansion of personal performance targets is one of the chief causes in the rise of stress internationally and particularly in China, where I think the competitive nature of the market is stronger than in the West,” says CEIBS’ Thompson.
In the face of stress, many senior managers are trying to manage the pressure by delegating work to others, while some are finding other ways to help ease their stress, such as meditation, exercising and traveling.
Barron also recommends meditation on a regular basis.
“Ten minutes everyday is more important than an hour every week, and the simplest technique is to focus on breathing,” he says.
Thompson says that exercise or vacations are only a temporary relief from stress.
“The more permanent way to get rid of stress is by living from within and from discovering who you really are and taking a step back and looking at yourself,” he says. “Perhaps enjoying humor because it is energizing and can also reveal a lot about you.”
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