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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: May 27, 2011 NO. 22 JUNE 2, 2011
Stressful Presence
Overwork threatens the health of office workers in China


Graduating from Shanghai Jiaotong University with a master's degree, Pan joined PwC in October 2010 as an outstanding candidate.

According to Pan's mother, Pan had to work long extra hours beginning in January 2011, and in March she usually wouldn't get off work until around 2 or 3 a.m. Pan's health kept worsening.

This can be confirmed with the records on Pan's micro-blog on Weibo.com. On January 4, Pan wrote, "I can accept overtime, as well as out-of-town business trips. But on learning a young worker died from fatigue at KPMG, I feel something has broken my bottom line to endure."

On March 31, Pan asked for sick leave from the company, and wrote on her micro-blog, "Whenever there's a chance to take a break, a fever comes. My body, should I praise you for being understanding or just the opposite?"

On April 1, she said on her micro-blog medical tests showed her white blood cell count had fallen to 1,800, a dangerously low number and everybody told her to quit the job.

It was also reported Pan had suffered from a low fever since mid-March. She first asked for sick leave on March 25, but was rejected by team leaders allegedly because the company was too busy. "She kept telling us she couldn't stand the frequent overtime work and high stress, which was driving her mad. But no one (in the office) seemed to care," said Yu Tianyan, Pan's friend.

Pan's request was finally approved on March 31 when she finished a project and her temperature jumped to 39 degrees Celsius. Pan's mother said even during Pan's sick leave, she received two calls from the company inquiring about her work progress and whether she had submitted a draft report.

On April 10, Pan died of acute cerebral meningitis caused by a viral or bacterial infection. "Based on her symptoms and her low white blood cell count, it's reasonable to conclude that overwork led to a weakened immune system, which makes her more vulnerable to infections," said Wang Guisong, a doctor at the Neurosurgery Department of Renji Hospital, where Pan stayed.

A dilemma for all

Pan's death caused an instant uproar on the Internet, prompting public debates over the greater health risks office workers in large Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are subjected to.

"Though the pay is good, I decided to quit," said Qi Qi, a 27-year-old former employee of Deloitte Consulting (Shanghai) Co. Ltd. During the busiest time of a year, her former job had often given Qi only a day or even a half-day off a week.

"Although we knew about the heavy workload at the company before we joined, we still felt distraught by the relentlessly long work hours," she said. "I had a serious illness after I left the company. It was probably because I suddenly felt relaxed."

But Zhao Xiaoli, who works in a Beijing-based law firm, said it is a hard to make the decision to quit. Graduated from Peking University with a master's degree in law in 2010, Zhao has been working in the law firm for almost 10 months.

"I spent almost six months flying around the country on business. Sometimes I could even sleep while I was standing," said Zhao. "But the competition to fight for a job in this law firm is very harsh. If I leave here, the next job might be just as tiring and not as well paid as this one."

"I don't have the courage to quit," said Ouyang Chenglu, who works in the same law firm with Zhao. "As housing prices are rocketing and daily necessities are becoming more expensive, I don't know what to live on if I can't find another job in a short term."

Ouyang said, according to the Labor Law of China, the daily work hours should not exceed eight hours, and the extra work hours should not be longer than three hours, but many companies have violated the stipulations.

"Many companies play tricks on this," said Guo Chao, an IT worker in Guangzhou. "They don't ask us to work extra hours but they give us a lot of work to do every day, which can't be completed in eight hours. So we have to stay and work longer."

Labor law experts said the problem should be partially blamed on the lack of legal definitions on overwork.

"The overwork of office workers isn't just a social problem but also a legal issue. So far, there is no clear legal definition of 'overwork,' and we don't know its impacts on workers' physical and mental health," said Wang Quanxing, a professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. "Measures should be taken to strengthen labor supervision departments and labor unions' role in monitoring and dealing with this. In addition, laws should be amended to properly define overwork."

Besides the responsibilities of the employers, Fan Xiaohong, Vice President of the Shanghai Chest Hospital, gave advice to office workers based on her clinic experiences. "Young people have been dying more and more in recent years from sudden onsets of cardiovascular disease," said Fan. "But, apart from heavy workloads and related pressures, many white-collar workers are vulnerable to diseases because they don't exercise enough and don't manage their health properly."

Fan said the best solution is preventative maintenance.

"Office workers, especially those in poor physical shape, should undergo routine physical examinations and pay more attention to their own diets and mental conditions," she said.

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