Is 996 the New 9-5? How Tech Can Avoid Burnout Culture

Would you work for 12 hours a day, six days a week? Maybe the better question is: Have you ever worked these hours? For many in tech, the answer is likely a resounding “yes.”

The nature of tech — with its flexible work hours and unpredictable problems that need immediate solving — often means workers don’t subscribe to a typical 9-5. And while that flexibility can be one of tech’s most attractive features, for many it’s also led to increased discussions about potential employee burnout and turnover.


Working 996, What a Way to Make a Living

Most recently, tech’s culture of working overtime made international headlines when Chinese tech workers began protesting the country’s 996 system — the 72-hour work week that sees people working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week.

996 is not new to China’s tech industry and was considered by many to be the country’s secret weapon against Silicon Valley.

But in March, the public debate around the ethics of 996 was ignited when an anonymous user posted on GitHub — an online community where programmers can share code and software tools — under the username “996icu”. Since then, hundreds of tech workers have contributed to the 996.ICU GitHub repository, which includes a blacklist of companies considered by users to be 996’s worst offenders.


git-hub-996-icuThe now-viral 996.ICU GitHub repository


But amidst the growing backlash, some of the biggest names in China’s tech sectors have defended the long hours, saying that many companies’ successes are directly linked to these long hours.


North America is Burning Out Too

As conversations about 996 heat up both online and in real life, concerns about “hustle” culture in North American tech continue to trouble both investors and entrepreneurs.

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit-turned-venture capitalist, warned against entrepreneurs succumbing to what he calls “hustle porn” — the tech narrative that says in order to make it big you must devote your entire life to your company.



In a recent op-ed for Fast Company, Jason Shen, a former competitive gymnast and co-founder of the tech company Midgame pushed back on a Twitter user who said that tech founders need to put in the same amount of work as elite athletes in order to achieve results. Shen says that the correlation between athletes and entrepreneurs is patently false — predominantly because professional athletes place a huge emphasis on both their physical and mental health and therefore make rest time and sleep part of their regime.

Unfortunately, the data suggests that burnout culture isn’t getting any better.

A 2018 survey conducted by Blind, an anonymous social app for tech workers, found that 57.16% of workers surveyed say they are experiencing job burnout.

What’s more, this burnout can have real consequences for a business. A survey from Kronos found that organizations “burn and churn” their talent, with nearly half of the HR workers surveyed saying that employee burnout is responsible for up to half of their annual workforce turnover. 


Screen Shot 2019-06-11 at 9.33.23 AM


The “grind till you make it” culture also makes it difficult for employees to even use the workplace benefits that they have earned. According to Project Time Off, 52% of employees reported having unused vacation days at the end of 2017. The top reasons for not taking time off included the fear of looking replaceable, too much work to return to and a lack of coverage at work.


Why Investors Should Care About Burnout Culture

Burnout culture can have huge implications for everyone in the tech ecosystem, including investors.

Before an investor decides to put their money in a company, they consider a lot of factors: the potential for a good return, whether it’s an idea that could change the world, if a company has a solid business plan and an inspiring founder.

But what about the work culture of the company?

When investing in a company, you’re investing in the whole company, and the rate of employee burnout, turnover and overall employee satisfaction affects company performance.

A study from Stanford economics professor John Pencavel found that employee productivity and output drops significantly after 50 hours of work in a week.

Once that workweek reaches 55 or more hours, their productivity becomes almost insignificant.

And the reality is that for most companies, work culture starts at the top, with the founder setting company tone and expectations. But with a reported 30% of founders suffering from depression, a rate that is four times that of the general population, many entrepreneurs are also at risk of burning out.

In “Forget About The Health of Your Portfolios For A Minute”, Jennifer Williams suggests that the high intensity of startup culture and the pressure for founders to always be “on” gives them little opportunity to check-in with themselves. Williams says investors should do more to support their founders.


“As investors who are supporting these startups in all aspects of their operations, we should give some consideration to supporting the mental health of the founders, and provide an opportunity to check in.” — Jennifer Williams, Director of Finance and Operations, Genesys Capital


The health of a company can be directly traced to the health of both its founder and the employees that help the founder achieve his or her vision. In fact, the term “tech ecosystem” means that each player — from investor to founder to the rest of the team — is part of an interconnected system. When one part of the ecosystem is hurting, everything else is affected.


5 Ways to Prevent Burnout Culture


Drew-HumiDrew Millington, co-founder of Humi

So what more can be done to avoid burnout culture in the first place? According to Drew Millington, co-founder of the HR and payroll startup Humi, companies, especially tech companies in an employee-dominant market, are not in the position to burn talent. Here 5 ways employers can avoid losing precious talent:


1. Stop Talking About “Work-Life Balance”

Millington rejects the popular concept of “work-life balance” calling it “dangerous” because it suggests that work is not part of life and is simply something people suffer through so that they can enjoy life. Instead, he says employers should focus on creating a meaningful workplace so that employees want to work hard.

“At the end of the day, if we’re putting together goals that are helping you grow, that you created, that you bought into, that are driving you forward — you’ll want to come to work,” says Millington.


2. Managers Should Be Empowered to Foster Culture Within Their Departments

Although overall company culture is important, Millington says that every department within a company will require different approaches to culture building and that responsibility falls on the manager. “Fact of the matter is, your culture on the marketing team is different from the development team which is different from the sales team,” says Millington. “I think the biggest advice to managers is: take ownership that you are the manager and you are the number one reason why people produce.”

Millington also says that founders play an integral role in training managers so they can structure their own engagement efforts with their teams.


3. Every Employee is Different — Find Out What Drives Them

In an employee-driven sector like tech where there are seemingly endless job opportunities, Millington argues that the key to retention is finding out what drives your employees as individuals and discovering ways to engage them with their work. Employers should encourage workers to find purpose and help them set goals that they want to achieve.

“If employees trust their manager and they trust themselves, they’ll chase after these goals,” says Millington. “Maybe it’s 997. Or maybe it’s just 554. If people feel a part of something, they chase after it and we can put trust in them to get it done.”


4. Founders Must Build Trust With the Entire Company

Speaking of trust, when it comes to founders fostering a healthy work environment for everyone at the company, Millington says that too boils down to trust. “I firmly believe that leaders and founders need to first and foremost be reliable,” says the co-founder. “Any task, any promise, people need to trust you. And I’m not talking about just a little trust, I mean an overwhelming amount of trust.”

Millington says that when a founder establishes a fundamental level of trust with everyone at the company, employees will more likely ride the waves of uncertainty that happen at any startup because they believe that founder has their back and will see the team through it.


5. An Engagement Tool Can Help, But Only You Can Actually Retain Employees

No tool, no matter how good it is, can miraculously change a company’s culture or prevent employee burnout. “The scary thing that’s common is a lot of people — business owners, leaders — think a tool is going to solve a lot of these problems,” says Millington. When it comes to Humi, Millington says its function is to take care of time-consuming administrative work so managers can focus on the tasks that really matter — things like fostering engagement.

At the end of the day, a tool is only as effective as you make it. “People flip from engagement tool to engagement tool, chasing after results through technology, without realizing that this is a fundamental, systemic problem that needs to be solved through people touchpoints,” says Millington.


The New Normal in Tech

With the pace of tech only speeding up, preventing employee burnout will depend on founders' and managers’ ability to set the right tone at the executive level, find innovative ways to engage employees in their work, as well as encourage workers to spend time outside of the office participating in other activities they care about.

While there may be no such thing as work-life balance, there is such a thing as creating a work environment where everyone feels empowered, inspired and valued.




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