The 888 vs 996 debate

Labour rights activist Robert Owen coined the famous phrase — 888 (eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest). That is one extreme. Alibaba founder Jack Ma went to the other extreme just a few days back. Ma has stirred up a huge controversy after saying that young people should see overtime work cultures (“996” schedule) as a huge blessing. The 996 schedule refers to working 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. “Unfortunately, many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996,” Ma said.

However, very few, it seems, would be interested to avail of the opportunity — evident from the discussion group called “996.ICU” set up by activists on Microsoft’s code-sharing site GitHub, suggesting that employees who work those hours could end up in an intensive care unit. 

The 996 culture is common in many countries, apart from China.  Japan, for example, has been having a problem with "death by overwork", expressed not only by statistics but also the fact that the Japanese language has a word for this: karoshi. It means employees dying either from stress-related ailments or the ones who take their lives because of the pressures of the job. A Japanese government report showed employees at nearly one in four companies notched up more than 80 hours of overtime a month, while staff at about one in 10 workplaces did an extra 100 hours. 

But Ma’s advice is perhaps being taken most seriously in India. Consider this: According to a study by UBS, two Indian cities (Mumbai and Delhi) figure in the top 10 overworked cities in the world. Mumbai, in fact, is the most hard working in the world as Mumbaikars work for an average of 3,315 hours annually. In comparison, a full-time employee in Beijing works for an average of 2,096 hours a year.

 
This is reflected in the number of vacations as well. According to the annual Vacation Deprivation Survey by Expedia, a global travel agency, India is the most vacation deprived country in the world. India moved up to the top position last year, from fifth in 2017. According to the survey, 68 per cent of people cancelled or postponed their vacations due to work in 2018. 

This is a disturbing set of data, as research has shown that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour-work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours —  so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours. This is evidence that those extra late nights in the office don’t necessarily boost output, and can put even rational employees on the edge. As the Harvard Business Review wrote, as employees work longer, they “progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless”. 

Technology has made matters worse. Some of the risks associated with the use of technology, often right up till bedtime, include disrupted sleep patterns, depression, burnout and relationship problems. Thankfully, many companies have realised this doesn’t help anybody. That explains the "right to disconnect”.  In Germany, for example, Daimler offers staff an auto delete function for their email while they are on holiday. Volkswagen has set its servers to stop delivering emails to mobile devices for some workers from 30 minutes after the end of the working day time until 30 minutes before it starts. Of course, this right does not apply in emergency situations.

But a common mistake companies make is to overwork their top talent. It is not fair that because a person is twice as good that they work twice as much. They will notice, and they will feel undervalued, mistreated and as if they are being punished for performing. They are the first to realise that their work quality may fall as a result.

The idea is to avoid a culture that venerates overwork because in such an environment, people internalise crazy hours as the norm. But those incredibly long days clearly aren't sustainable and, therefore, it's perhaps time to ask a better question: Are we working smart instead of just working hard?

There is just no point in finding yourself in a state of being where everyone feels 24x7 working is the best way to impress the boss who would be mighty impressed with their permanent state of busy-ness. The danger is that the CEO would end up with a bunch of multi-tasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding zombies, who are always banging the lift button without realising that it will only stop working.

While the 888 culture may not be feasible anymore, the option can’t be the 997 way of working. The solution may lie somewhere else.