996 might seem like a set of unassuming numbers to the average onlooker, but for some workers, especially those in China, these numbers fill professionals with dread. The number 996 refers to 9am to 9pm, six days a week, and is shorthand for the punishing schedule Chinese professionals are expected to maintain, especially those in the tech industry.
At a glance, most can see why 996 is feared. With such a grueling schedule, there is little to no time left for individuals to rest, relax, spend time with family and friends, indulge in hobbies, or even cook proper meals. Once accounting for sleeping and commuting, one might wonder how ambitious tech workers fit in the rest of their lives.
Many today might wonder who would advocate for such an exhausting work schedule, but until recently, many of China’s big name tech magnates espoused said work ethics. While not an official work schedule, companies such as Alibaba, JD.com, Youzan, and more, all encouraged their staff to dedicate themselves to 996 as a means to stay ahead of the competition.
Unfortunately, such a schedule is unsustainable. Without proper rest and time to cool-off, worker fatigue and job burn-out is inevitable. Just earlier this year, two employees of the fast-growing e-commerce platform Pingduoduo (PDD) died unexpectedly, sparking public outrage over the 996 schedule and reopening debates.
At the very least, China has begun to acknowledge that such extreme scheduling is highly detrimental and have made moves against it. Recently China’s top court has ruled that the controversial overtime work policy is illegal.
The court’s guidelines and labor dispute cases have signaled China’s move to take on the grueling overtime work culture of the tech industry. It comes amid the nation’s wide-ranging crackdown on the immense private tech sector, the ‘common prosperity’ campaign to reduce inequality, and the public discontent with immense societal pressure.