Chinese employees have little option of work-life balance. With long and intense working hours, demanding bosses and little or no HR support, it’s all about work-life conflict.
Heightened global competition and the fast growth of the private sector have resulted in long and intense working hours for many Chinese employees.
Little is known regarding the work–life issues of managerial and professional employees beyond the sweatshop regime. Our study of 122 professionals and managers may go some way to filling this knowledge gap.
We interviewed 13 CEOs, 28 senior managers, 46 mid-ranking managers and 35 professional employees. Informants came from part-time EMBA programs provided by two top-ranking universities, one based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, and the other in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Interviewees were aged between early 30s and early 50s, with the majority in their mid-30s and 40s. They all had at least seven years of work experience at the time of the interview as an admission requirement for the EMBA program. They had worked for their current employer for between three and six years. The size of the organisations represented by informant managers was quite evenly spread from small to medium and large.
- Only 26 informants reported that there was no work-life conflict (WLC) issue in their organisation, These were mainly companies that do not face strong competition in the market.
- Work intensity/pressure and family commitment were the two main sources of WLC. Work-related issues were overwhelmingly the main causes of WLC.
- Working long hours and having no or limited rest days appears to be the main source of WLC for Chinese workers.
- Having a heavy workload was the second most reported reason for WLC.Government organisations are among the worst offenders of work–life balance (WLB) and have no formal WLB policies.
- Similarly, frequent business trips cause significant disruption to family life.
- Tensions exist between work and personal life, particularly for women who tend to be responsible for caring for children and the elderly.
- Single career women are too busy to find a spouse and fear starting a family at the expense of their career.
Of the 96 organisations that were reported by the informants as having WLC issues, 79 have taken measures of various forms to address the problem. These can be summarised into four categories: financial rewards, non-financial rewards, adjustment of working time, moral teaching and spiritual support.
Financial rewards (eg, overtime payment, bonus and other material incentives) were the main method used by the organisation to, “compensate for the sacrifice of employees’ personal time” or to “reward employees’ contribution to the company”. SOEs and privately owned firms are also more likely to reinforce the effects of financial and non-financial methods through moral education that persuades employees to subscribe to organisational goals.
There is a mismatch between managers’ attitudes towards employees’ WLB and the employees’ expectations of what support they desire from their employer.
Our findings and those from other studies suggest that the negative impact of work on family life tends to be greater than the impact of conflict of family life on work.
How individuals cope
In the absence of effective HR interventions, individuals adopt a range of coping strategies, such as:
- Joining sports clubs to keep fit and to socialise with people with similar backgrounds.
- Voting with their feet.
- Outsourcing housework and drawing on family networks for support.
- Persuading wives to quit their job and become full-time housewives.
- Withdrawing from family life and social life.
Organisational leaders, and to some extent workers, tend to accept WLC. While organisations are more likely to introduce HR initiatives, to cushion the negative effect of long working hours on their employees and their families, managers are far less sympathetic towards women’s (and men’s) childcare needs and are unwilling to introduce policy to accommodate family commitments.
Without the adequate support of social policy and effective enforcement of labour standards, and without the cultural change that encourages better WLB to enhance individual, family and social wellbeing, it would be unrealistic to expect organisations to introduce WLB policies voluntarily for the benefit of employees and their families.
Nor would such policies, even if introduced, be taken up by individuals who regard improving their material lives and holding on to jobs/careers as their priority.