Worked to Death: Overtime in Shanghai

The recent death of a young Ogilvy and Mather employee in Beijing has sparked concerns in Chinese news media regarding the ethics of overtime work for white collar positions. The 24-year-old experienced a heart attack and died suddenly at his desk; it was later reported that he had been regularly working overtime for the entire past month, often until 11pm.

While the connection between Li Yuan's OT work and death remains unproven, the stress of overworking is still a cause for serious concern and attention. CH talked to a few experts and an ad industry insider on the potential effects of high-stress overtime situations for those of us doing white collar work in China and asked: is death by overwork possible?

The consensus: it's difficult to link the two, but it seems you people deserve a serious break. So, first off, what's it like working in this kind of high-pressure office environment?

Vanessa* / former 4A Account Executive in Shanghai

"It’s not just in advertising. Within creative industries, you see similar cases everywhere. I’ve heard of people passing out at their desks; I know someone whose husband passed away from a heart attack after meeting with clients.

When I worked at a 4A agency, I had a lot of former colleagues who worked too much. I mean, 90 percent of them don’t even eat on time. It’s so common to forget to have lunch. I’d say that’s the biggest problem, really – not eating regular meals. So many of them had gastro-intestinal problems. I’ve even heard of someone throwing up blood while on the job.

Of course, you can never really say that [the recent death at Ogilvy] was just caused by overworking. Creative people have a different kind of habit – they really like staying at the office late working, and doing some other non-work related stuff. Some people gave me the feeling that they didn’t even want to go home, like those who were sticking around to play online video games."

"So it’s a bit unfair to say that longer hours at the office equals overwork and stress equals bad health. Of course there’s pressure from management, but in Shanghai, a lot of people are willing to work on weekends. Management might expect a two to three day turnaround time, but some people like the fast-paced nature, the glamour of the job." But what are the potential hazards of pushing on?

Ans Hooft / Life Coach and Stress Counselor

Ans Hooft provides professional guidance for people who are burned out or have somehow lost their way.

According to Hooft: "Stress in itself is not exactly a bad thing – we actually need it and thrive on it sometimes. It’s as soon as we feel that we no longer have control, then that’s when it becomes bad. We’re lucky that our bodies give us warning signs though.

If you’re overworking yourself, you might be feeling very tired, have constant headaches, a cold that doesn’t go away, trouble sleeping, spotty vision, overreacting to small things. Most of my clients are working professionals, Westerners, who tend to be working too much.

Work life in Shanghai is nearly 24 hours a day; a lot of people are on and off, on and off all the time. That is unhealthy. The body needs time to recover, so relax. Realize that your body needs time to recover and go home on time. Then you’ll be fresh for the next day. Switch off your phone, do something completely different when outside of the office – sports, yoga, a walk, whatever.

And remember, drinking does not release stress in the long term, so do not rely on alcohol as a stress reliever. Work on your work-life balance. Friends are very important; spending time with loves ones is very good for relieving stress."

Even then, a lot of people working in Shanghai simply adapt and learn to cope with the stress—but how do you know when it’s gotten out of hand?


1. Overworked people are often dehydrated and skip meals—make sure you drink enough water and eat light, healthy meals on time.
2. Lack of focus creates susceptibility to injury – don’t lose your focus when doing basic things like crossing the road.
3. Get adequate sleep and exercise.
4. Deteriorating relationships – people show signs of apathy to those around them, resentment towards employer or avoidance of loved ones. Keep this risk in mind and put equal value or more on yourself and your family.
5. Stress management activities – yoga, meditation, taichi, even just going for a walk. Do anything to sort of switch the mind off of work for awhile, especially if you can get some “fresh” air and sunlight.


Leslie Bottrell, General Practitioner

Bottrell is a GP at American Medical Center. She says: "Expats are a relatively healthy population here, but we do often see the signs of stress and overwork – excessive weight, high blood pressure, lots of incidences of insomnia and so on. No one is immune from the effects of overworking – with the majority of our patients, what we see is a long term effect.

Dropping dead at your desk is quite a rare case. When you’re talking long term, it’s more difficult to impress upon people the consequences. Like smokers, [overworked employees] don’t tend to think that far down the line. White collar workers tend to say to themselves 'I'll just work this hard for this one time,' then end up suddenly working at an unsustainable level."

"How long someone can sustain high levels of stress and work -- that depends on the state of health before the job, if there’s a family history of conditions, their own lifestyles. But what we see is that those who do overwork tend to ignore symptoms. They don’t make time to go see the doctor for checkups, [or] they delay their treatment when something is bothering them.

[Some physical signs of overworking are] fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pains, tightness in the chest, an increase in blood cortisol levels, which can lead to high blood pressure. People might also experience lowered immunity, become susceptible to infections—which tend to last longer. When someone’s whole focus is on work, there can be mental issues too, like feelings of depression, job insecurity or anxiety.

We also see an increased likelihood of risk-taking: smoking often ties into the culture, as well as drinking. And in my practice, you might see an increase in STDs and physical injuries because people are not really caring for themselves, and are doing things without thinking or paying attention."

And lastly, what are the legal limits of such incidences?

Helen Li, Partner at TransAsia Lawyers

Li spoke to us on behalf of TransAsia Lawyers, which specializes in commercial and corporate law and was named Chambers & Partners' "Law Firm of the Year" for employment law in China for 2010, 2011 and 2013 as well as China Law & Practice as "PRC Firm of the Year for Labor & Employment" in 2011 and 2012.

"The working hours standard currently implemented nationwide is 8 hours a day (excluding time spent traveling to and from work, mealtimes and other rest periods), 40 hours per week [in total]… An employer that needs to extend its employees’ working hours due to production and operational requirements may arrange to do so, although generally not for more than 1 hour per day.

In special circumstances requiring a further extension of working hours, employers may do so, provided that the employees' health is not affected and that the extended working hours do not exceed 3 hours per day, or 36 hours per month." If workers are only legally allowed to do a maximum of three hours overtime, why do we see people who are leaving their offices at say, 10-11pm – clearly more than the maximum? "

For certain positions, it is possible for the company to adopt a non-fixed working hours system, but only with approval from the local labor bureau (ie, in Beijing, senior management personnel are exempt from such approval requirement). Under such a system, the company need not pay its employees for overtime nor is there a cap on the maximum number of working hours, subject to local laws.

If foreign workers (which, for purposes of PRC employment law, includes residents from HKG, Macao and Taiwan) are employed directly by an entity registered within the territory of the PRC, then their employment relationship will be governed by PRC law.

Accordingly, they are entitled to the same protection as Chinese employees. However, if a foreign worker:

(a) signed his/her employment contract with and established the employment relationship with an offshore entity;

(b) is seconded to work in China for its subsidiaries; and

(c) the parties have chosen a foreign law to govern the contract, then their employment relationship (including with respect to working hours) will be governed by applicable foreign law, not PRC law.]

So, the overtime laws for Chinese workers don’t necessarily apply to foreigners."

Is there any way for a worker to protect him/herself against over-exertion or exhaustion?

"In China, if an employee’s death is determined by the relevant authority to be a work-related injury, then the work-related injury insurance fund and the employer must pay compensation to his/her family member.

Determining whether an employee’s death is work-related requires analysis of various factors, including whether such injury occurred during working hours, within the work place and due to the performance of work duties. According to Article 15 (1) of the Work-Related Injury Insurance Regulations, if an employee dies during working hours or while on the job, or within 48 hours after obtaining emergency treatment for a disease, then the death will be deemed to be a work-related injury.

Under current PRC employment law, there is no legal concept of 'death caused by over exertion/exhaustion', as there is no objective, legal standard for “over-exertion or exhaustion”. [Thus, it’s not definitive] whether a company is liable for an employee whose death is caused by over-exertion/exhaustion.

Because under PRC law there is no concept of “death caused by over-exertion/exhaustion” and this type of dispute seldom happens in China, it’s hard to speak confidently about a worker’s chances for success."


*Name partially withdrawn on request of interviewee.

Editor's note: This article first appeared on CreativeHunt on May 30, 2013. We're rescuing it from the archives and chucking it back into the rotation because we feel you might find the information useful and relevant. From the CH vaults, this one's aged like fine wine...