The E-Commerce Entrepreneurs Who Are Literally Working Themselves To Death

A 24-year-old with the Taobao user name ‘Aijun aj’ died of work-induced cardiac failure in 2012 / Weibo

Running an online business can be difficult. It can also be life-threatening.

In China, there’s been a spike in the number of overworked employees who have dropped dead, particularly in the e-commerce space.

One company that’s becoming infamous for its user death toll is Taobao, a Chinese e-commerce platform that resembles eBay. Merchants can post items on their own Taobao storefronts. They’re in charge of everything from keeping inventory and shipping items to updating the website and communicating with customers. But when their businesses take off, the work load can become too much.

In July 2012, 24-year-old “Aijun aj” who was running a store on Taobao died of cardiac failure. She wasn’t the first or the last. Jun’s death was preceded by a mother who ran a store on Taobao and a 25-year-old who ran another highly-rated online shop. 

Being overworked doesn’t directly kill you. It leads to a series of poor health decisions, such as irregular diets, chronic stress, lack of exercise, and exhaustion, which can cause heart issues like Aijun’s, blood clots and more.

Since the death of Aijun, other Taobao shopkeepers have expressed how gruelling maintaining an online business can be. 

“I miss my sleep,” one Taobao store owner told China’s YouthDaily. “Although I hired someone to help me with customer service, things are never done. I still have to do the restocking, customer service, delivery, photography, web page design and information editing. As a result, I have to sacrifice my sleep.”

Another described the madness of maintaining growth. “I often talk to 15 to 20 customers at once,” Su Yuli tells YouthDaily. “Whether you are on your way to the post office to take delivery or sitting on the toilet, you have to be [communicating with Taobao customers].”

A survey produced by Taobao last year showed its sellers often work 10-15 hours per day, YouthDaily reports. And another survey from 2011 of Taobao’s store managers cited by Epoch Times is even more startling:

“38 manager/owners, or more than 50 per cent, had cervical abnormalities. 37 manager/owners, or 94 per cent of the female manager/owners, had hyperplasia of mammary gland. 35 per cent, or 26 managers/owners, were diagnosed with hyperopia. Chronic pharyngitis, dyslipidemia, fatty liver disease, and thyroid abnormality were confirmed in 21, 19, 18, and 17 managers/owners, respectively.” 

Since Taobao is a platform, not an employer of the over-worked, it can’t be blamed when its users push themselves too hard. But Taobao is trying to help find a solution. 

“No matter how important your career is, do not neglect your health, especially during these hot summer days,” it warned its shopkeepers after Aijun’s death. 

Still, the number of e-commerce related health issues and deaths in China are on the rise. More than 50,000 surveyed online shop owners reported having regular headaches, aches and pains, ChinaDaily reports. A 2012 study cited by Epoch Times found that 600,000 people die suddenly from being over-worked each year.

The most recent incident occurred last week, when 36-year-old Taobao shop owner Wu Lijun died of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a blood clot in the brain. Lijun ran one of Taobao’s most popular skincare businesses. A May article, “The Top 10 Sudden-Death-Prone Industries.” listed “Taobao shopkeeper” as the tenth most fatal career. Again, Taobao alerted its users to the dangers of working excessively.

Exhaustion-induced fatalities have occurred outside the e-commerce industry too. In May, an advertising employee at Ogilvy China suffered a fatal heart attack. Blogs and tweets were quick to blame it on too much work; the man reportedly spent 30 days leading up to his death working until 11 PM.

While companies like Taobao can help create awareness for the work-enduced deaths, it’s up to its merchants to know when to pump the breaks.

“Why does a day only have 24 hours? I want to be a rechargeable robot,” Aijun lamented once online.

Shortly after, she was dead.

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