Beware mimicking Jack Ma: Toxic overwork culture will stain your business

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stressed worker

Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and founder of the tech firm Alibaba, sparked controversy recently by advocating a ‘996’ working schedule. Forget nine-to-five: 996 means working 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

The controversy stemmed from comments Jack Ma made to his Alibaba employees. Ma celebrated 996 work culture, and warned that prospective Alibaba employees must be prepared to work twelve-hour days, “Or why bother joining? We don’t lack those who work eight hours comfortably.”

“The real 996 is not simply overtime work,” Ma later explained on the Chinese social media site Weibo. He acknowledged that everyone should choose whether or not to work overtime but added that those who fail to work 996 “won’t taste the happiness and rewards of hard work.”

Ma’s comments on Weibo attracted censure, with even the Chinese state media indirectly condemning the billionaire’s attitude.

“Advocating hard work and commitment does not mean forcing overtime,” said a commentary in the state-run newspaper People’s Daily. “The mandatory enforcement of 996 overtime culture not only reflects the arrogance of business managers, but also is unfair and impractical.”

If you secretly side with Jack Ma and are tempted to push for overtime from your employees, consider the recent findings that UK employers habitually pay their employees incorrectly or late, and that checking work emails at home is bad for employees’ health.

Ask yourself: is this a level of commitment and sacrifice that I would personally give to someone else’s venture?

It’s one thing if you, the founder, pour your heart and soul into your business. It’s your passion, your project, and it will be your personal success at the end of the road.

It’s another to not just hope for but demand the same from your employees.

Joe Nicholls from Hodge Jones and Allen said: “It’s difficult not to be sceptical of [Ma’s] motivations. Jack Ma – who is reportedly worth £30 billion – may have entirely commercial, selfish reasons for wanting to drive productivity out of his empire of workers.

“There’s little evidence to support his claims that employees benefit in any sustainable way from this way of working.”

Despite the transparently selfish motivations behind Ma’s call for a 996 schedule, he is hardly the only employer to make such a misguided announcement. Last November, Elon Musk put out a recruitment call for Tesla, tweeting: “There are way easier places to work, but no one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

There will always be employers who expect the world from their employees, and there will always, sadly, be workers who become trapped in untenable situations.

As a founder, you can create a toxic overwork culture and suffer the costs of high employee turnover and burnout. Or you can attract and keep top talent by treating your employees as human beings with full lives outside of the office.

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