zhang rui chunyu doctor

The late Zhang Rui, CEO of Chunyu Doctor. Pic: Chunyu Doctor

Overworked: Death of 44-year-old CEO sparks discussion around China’s work culture

WHILE some Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, are trying on the six-hour workday for size – things are playing out very differently in China’s tech companies.

It’s very common for tech workers in China to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week (a so-called ‘996’ schedule) and some employees even spend the week living at the office to swap commute time for more hours at the desk. Employees are also encouraged to take naps two times within a work day, usually after lunch and around 9pm – so they can maintain productivity.

While strict work ethic may be the main catalyst of the meteoric growth of some of China’s Internet companies, it is also a cause for serious concern when someone literally works themselves to death. In particularly poignant news for the Asian tech community, the CEO of well-known mobile healthcare startup Chunyu Doctor died of a heart attack on October 5th.

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While there is no evidence that ties the 44-year-old Zhang Rui’s death to being overworked, many in the tech community are speculating that the intensely competitive nature of the Internet space was a big contributor to it.

“The stress and loneliness that startup founders feel can’t be comprehended by normal people,” said Leon Li, founder of one of China’s top bitcoin exchanges, as reported by Bloomberg. “Especially in the Internet sector, where entry barriers are low and competition is fierce, it’s like stepping on thin ice.”

Founded in 2011, Chunyu has experienced much success over the years as it raised 1.2 billion yuan (US$178 million) in a Series D round this year which valued the company at over US$1 billion. Zhang’s death was during a “critical juncture” for the unicorn startup as it was also reportedly planning on going public.

It is often said that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life – which might explain why so many passionate startup founders are pulling what they consider necessary 70-hour work weeks. But poor work-life balance can take an immense toll on the overworked and underslept entrepreneur who isn’t prioritizing eating well or spending time with family and friends.

Zhang’s cause of death may not be directly linked to the immense stress a startup founder experiences, but his passing is certainly a very sobering cautionary tale that all entrepreneurs should heed.