This is 996 culture, a grueling 72-hour work week popular in China that’s been criticized for ruining work-life balance

Man walks past alibaba logo at headquarters
Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, is one of many companies criticized for its grueling work culture. Thomas Peter/Reuters
  • The 996 schedule compels employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
  • The schedule is widespread in China, especially among tech companies in China’s Silicon Valley.
  • Chinese workers have blasted the policy on social media for ruining their personal lives.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The brutal work schedule known as the “996” has been blamed for making work-life balance impossible, causing unnecessary stress, and even killing workers at some of China’s leading tech companies.

This unwritten rule of many Chinese workplaces has been championed by tech leaders and denounced by workers and activists for years. Here’s what you need to know about the infamous “996.”

What is 996 work culture?

The “996,” a work schedule which encourages or coerces employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, is common among Chinese tech companies and startups. Though the practice is technically prohibited by Chinese law, many companies still enforce the hours informally or formally.

Working overtime is now normal,” a blogger on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, said. “What’s even more scary is that so many young people are already used to this and don’t dare to protest because they know even if they do, it will be useless.”

‘We can’t help but ask – is it really worth it to exchange our lives for money’? How does 996 affect Chinese workers?

For young tech workers, the grinding work schedule means more burnout and less time for basics like sleep, sex, or a personal life, according to the South China Morning Post.

An activist group created the project “996.ICU” on Github in early 2019, where critics listed examples of unreasonable overtime work and blacklisted companies accused of engaging in the practice and whitelisted companies with more humane hours, Reuters reported.

Furor over the “996” was reignited in December, 2019, after a 22-year-old working at Pinduoduo, an e-commerce company, collapsed and died on the streets of Urumqi, China, after leaving work at 1:30 a.m. The woman was seen in China as another victim of an extreme culture of overworking, and outrage flared on Chinese social media.

“This way of working is very harmful for the human body, we’ve heard a lot of news about deaths from working overtime in recent years, but this deformed overtime system still prevails,” one blogger said. “We can’t help but ask – is it really worth it to exchange our lives for money?”

Who supports this schedule?

Well, many Chinese tech CEOs for one.

Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, who rose from poverty to become one of China’s richest men, is one of the most fervent supporters of 996, calling the hectic schedule a “huge blessing” for young professionals. “If you find a job you like, the 996 problem does not exist,” he said. “If you’re not passionate about it, every minute of going to work is a torment.”

Richard Liu, CEO of Chinese ecommerce company JD.com, agreed with Ma’s statement, stating on his WeChat feed that “slackers aren’t my brothers!

But it’s not just Chinese leaders who defend long hours – Elon Musk believes that people looking to make an impact on the world should work 80 to 100 hours a week, saying “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Is this policy actually effective?

Research has shown that shorter work weeks are often more productive and that people struggle to concentrate on their tasks for long hours. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to cancer, weight gain and memory problems.

Do you have a 996 work culture story to share? Email the reporter of this story from a non-work email at [email protected]