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100-hour weeks and five days holiday a year: the tough life of Chinese bankers

Burning the midnight oil in the private sector

Burning the midnight oil in the private sector

Chinese princelings working in investment banking may be able to swan into the office whenever they feel like it, but rank and file employees in local institutions are expected to burn the midnight oil, and barely take time out for a vacation.

A recent eFinancialCareers survey found that finance professionals in Hong Kong and Singapore regularly worked overtime and the working culture in China is no different. However, Chinese professionals are increasingly stressed –  recent research from Regus suggests that 75% of people in the country reporting an rise in workplace stress, compared with the global average of 48%.

Amanda Lote, managing director and founder of search firm Lote and Partners, says China and Hong Kong are relatively similar when it comes to a work/life ratio skewed in favour of long hours at the office.

“Very often Saturdays are expected,” she says. “I have one hedge fund client in China where a 100-hour work week is normal. Hedge funds are notorious for the long hours worked by junior analysts.”

Chinese nationals, in particular, get a raw deal compared to their foreign counterparts, getting less time off for holidays, and low salaries, unless they are in senior roles, says Lote.   

A 2011 poll by human resource firm Mercer found that workers in China have one of the lowest annual leave entitlements globally, qualifying for just five days after one year’s service and rising to a mere ten says after a decade.

Despite fresh evidence of rising stress levels among Chinese workers, other recruiters believe that China offers a better work/life balance than Singapore and Hong Kong for finance workers, even though they tend to work the longest hours compared to employees in other industries.

Vivian Ng, managing director, Morgan McKinley Shanghai, says however, that it very much depends where you work.

“The hours vary across the banking sector. On average, you can expect hours in smaller financial institutions to be better than those in larger ones. Middle and back office professionals also have better hours,” she says.

The major difference is in front-office roles, she says, where business entertaining plays a major role, and sometime requires long hours every night hosting clients at dinners, Ng notes.

Another recruiter, who asked not to be named, says finance professionals who work for government-owned or local banks in China tend to have a better work-life balance than those employed by foreign institutions. Nine out of ten staff at state-owned or local lenders generally leave the office by 6pm.

“By contrast, professionals at private equity and venture capital firms, like their peers in the foreign banks, can have very long work days,” the recruiter says.

And any foreign workers hoping for cushy expat packages in recognition of China being a tough working environment in cities that have an unenviable pollution problem will be disappointed.

“China is no longer seen as a hardship posting and traditional expat packages are rare. I would say the good old days of pre-global financial crisis packages of school fees, flights and drivers for China postings are mostly over. Total compensation is quite prosaic these days.”

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