Work Stress in China (Wuhan)


This research examines the levels of stress recorded in working individuals over a range of industries in China’s third largest city. In total 38 company employees were tested via a four-part questionnaire to determine overall stress levels. It was found that the mean for stress was 89.97; this falls easily within the norm for working stress of 80 to 110 as determined by the instrument. While clearly some occupations exhibited high stress situational factors others were below the norm showing a lack of challenge in the work or non-commitment to the employer. All abnormal scores were examined and followed up with the offer of counselling at the employees discretion. All employers received a written report of overall stress levels but without identifying individual employees.


Stress is well known in Western countries for its disabilitating effects of the economy, employee relations and health. However in China this area in not well understood by employers or employees alike. When interviewed many respondents reported the effect of overwork or strain as merely a lack of rest and saw the solution as simply having more sleep. It is common practice in China for employees to start at 7.30 am for a normal day and have lunch at 11.30 am and follow this by sleeping at their work station or on a cot. At nearly 2 pm they resume work until about 6 or 7 pm on which they are free to return home. However many employees continue to work until the boss leaves as this is seen as being a good employee in waiting for him to leave. (The overwhelming majority of boss’s are male – in this investigation only the two schools had female leaders.)

The investigation was based on a four part questionnaire and informal discussions with the employees post completion at which time the individual results were discussed and explained. The four areas covered were General Stress, much of this based on the work of Hans Selye (1956) and the General Adaptation Syndrome, the second area was Physical complaints to see if any medical complaints were associated with overall stress condition. The third area covered Mental Health, covering areas such as insomnia, depression and similar reports and finally the last part was based on the idea of A – B personality types in everyday behaviour such as fast driving and impatience. (Friedman & Rosenman 1974) Life changes (Holmes & Rahe 1967) were ignored as to not confuse the employees with work conditions and home life changes.


A word on culture is required; the questionnaires were not adapted in anyway except being translated from English to Chinese. This was a difficult area as much time was spent making sure the questionnaires still maintained the essential tone required to elicit the same responsive thinking as Western subjects. Penny (1996) reported that Western culture strives for achievement as capitalist goals but that traditional communal societies may have different types of stressors involved in their cognitive makeup. However China itself is now moving very rapidly towards capitalism and many of the ideas and goals of Western employees are now being embraced in China. Particularly ownership of homes and material possessions. As basic requirements for the new middle classes in China are not essentially food anymore then other priorities are becoming much more like Western living desirability’s.

However some areas of Chinese business life and daily affairs are more prevalent in daily living. Fear is a key management technique and all employees are aware of the lack of security in their work place. Also the practice of “favours” (gwanshee) this is where you may accept help from someone in authority and then are indebted to them both in the favour and emotionally. These “favours” can take many forms such as cash support, promotion (over more able employees), family considerations and the dark side of this practice – bribery. The Chinese do not see this practice the way a Westerner would as corrupt and controlling but as a normal way of life in a society where you cannot succeed without the help of the “leaders” or influential friends. However it is expected that one day the person has to “pay back” and this is often well in excess of the original support. Unconfirmed reports of employers requiring sexual favours from young attractive but ambitious girls are not unheard of here. The girls often do not see this as harassment but as using their biological looks for the best advantage. This also flies in the face of the strict moral society that China displays on the surface but see corruption of this kind as perfectly normal and not to be discussed.

Much of the cultural understanding came prior to this research by the author after three years living and working in China. This is the subject of other papers.


In this research the investigation was to establish the Stress levels compared to those normally scored in a four part questionnaire adapted for language. It is expected that different occupations will show diverse scores above and below the norm but overall the Stress level will be similar to that experienced in Western countries.



The investigation was carried out by a four part questionnaire (see appdx 1) in which four areas of stressors were surveyed and analysed. The four areas were as follows:
1.General Stressors
2.Mental Cognitive levels
3.Physiological Reports
4.A – B personality

Each area was scored and the four scores added together to reach an overall stress level. The scoring was devised over many years and used in other investigations since its inception in the early 1980’s by the author. The questionnaire has been used extensively in clinical practice and previous research and has proved reliable. The normal stress levels experience in daily life in England (where it has been used in the past) was between 80 and 110. Those in excess of 110 were seen as suffering abnormal stress levels – the highest possible score is 280. Those lower than 80 were seen as either in very sedate work or alternatively in denial about their real levels of stress. (Bearing in mind boredom as a stressor itself). Each area was divided into statements in which the subject could agree on a Likert scale of 1 to 4 – this being the regularity of occurrence of the statement being read by the subject. The questionnaire was translated by four Chinese students of English and the translation then given to four other students of a different major (psychology) to read back to the researcher in English to check for loss of understanding or emphasis. Corrections were then applied before giving to the research assistants.


The investigation was carried out over 38 companies, (listed in the results section) and 541 individual subjects ranging from 5 to 39 with an average of 10 per company. Some questionnaires were discarded for incompletion or being non-readable content. All companies were in the Wuhan city area of P.R. China. Wuhan is a semi-modern city in Central China with some Western influences evident but not on the scale of Beijing or Shanghai. Therefore a balance of traditional thinking and modernity were evidenced.


1.Four part questionnaire in both Chinese and English
2.Supply of pens for participants.


Each company was approached at management level for permission to carry out the survey with in the company. A summery report of findings was offered to employers on completion of the investigation – on their company only (not other participants) as an individual report. (No individual subject being identifiable from the findings).

The employees were then briefed as to the purpose of the questionnaire and given some example questions to consider. Difficult words or concepts were explained in advance without influencing outcomes. Confidentiality of individual questionnaires was assured and that employers would not be able to see the originals or any notes taken. Follow up counselling was discussed for those who desired it (this would be carried out under the supervision of the clinical director of therapy at the University).

The researcher did not apply questionnaires directly but used senior fourth year psychology students to deliver and administer the questionnaire after training from the researcher in technique and follow up procedures.

Post questionnaire and scoring those results out of the normal range were discussed in detail by the researcher with the student assistant and any follow up counselling and guidance discussed.

All subjects were debriefed and thanked for their participation.

All companies received a thank you letter from the University and summery report of the findings of stress within their organisation and some feedback as to possible problem areas and solutions. This was kept very broad in approach and not specific as to enable identification of individual participants.

All results were compiled and compared. Student assistants wrote individual papers for University credit for taking part. The researcher in turn thanked the student assistants from psychology and English for their support in collecting the data.


The results are shown here in summery form for a detailed company by company analysis see appendix 2.

All Companies

Standard Error
Standard Deviation
Sample Variance
Confidence Level(95.0%)

The questionnaires normal distribution of everyday stress is determined at between 80 and 110 – from the above mean of 89.97 the overall stress levels experienced in China compare with that of Western companies average.

The smallest score clearly shows denial or apathy at 48.6 and the largest score is showing mild stress experienced at 129.55.


In this research the hypothesis was to establish if stress levels in China were comparable to those measured in Western countries. The results clearly show a perfect correlation for the questionnaire in stress scores. Investigation of individual scoring and question analysis is beyond the scope of the present paper but the subject to a follow up paper in due course.

Culture did not have a significant effect on the overall results however the base cause of the stress may be different particularly with the tradition of “favours” seen in business and government. In Chinese thinking this practice is actually seen as a way of cementing close relationships through emotional debt. Also in traditional thinking charity is self-serving – they do not help for altruistic reasons but for their own future benefit almost like putting money in the bank for future use and security. Family fealty also plays its part in the system in that “favour” is given and expected by the family and that the young are expected to pay-back the cost of bringing them to adulthood through future financial support. Western influence is starting to erode this system from two converging points, one education; many modern Chinese students have access to the internet, foreign teachers, commercial advertising and cultural changes to the environment such as a McDonald’s on every corner and KFC amongst other particularly American influence. This is starting a more materialistic attitude in the young who want the lifestyles seen in Western movies and the illustrated packaging on goods. The second is the importance of English for international trade and business. Almost every educated Chinese person you meet wants to learn and practice their English. This also exposes many to material written by American and British writers of text books much of this exposing Western ideas of moral behaviour and so undermining the system of “favours”.

An environmental change is Chinas entry into the World Trade Organisation and the new restrictions on conducting business and government policy. Many companies wishing to trade in the new markets need to change the modus operanda of the way they have conducted business in the past. Many employees are feeling these changes directly as now skill and knowledge are required over family considerations.

At the lower end of work that exhibited the least stress were those employees working in restaurants, schools, retail and government industries and the higher end were the heavy industry and construction workers. At the high end of stress were such occupations as University staff at 110 – the high end of normal where as school employees averaged at about 86 the lower end of normal. The highest score was in the manufacturing area with one electrical equipment company scoring a mean of 130.

The full list follows with company names and the mean score. Do bear in mind that the range of participants varied from company to company and this should be seen in its methodological consequence. Detailed scoring can be review in the appendices attached to this paper.

Further analysis is required and another attempt at similar numbers in another geographically area to arrive at a more accurate vision of a changing China. Also investigation into illness and resistance to such ailments as high blood pressure and heart disease need to be investigated.

In summery, Chinese stress levels seem on the surface to be comparable with Western levels but underlying stressors as discussed in cultural and environmental changes may be contributing factors to future stress levels.

All companies by mean comparison:

BeiHu Restaurant


China Telecom


China Unicom


Fen Xiao High School


Fourth Survey Design Institute of China Railways


Han Iron & Steel Group Corp


Hubei Huiting Iron & Steel Industry Trade Co.Ltd.


Hubei Rich Network Technologies


Hubei ZhongXin Reality Ev.Company


HuDa Hospital


Hujin Restaurant


Iron & Steel Industry Co.


Jiu Zhou Education Company


Liu Zhong Fem Xiao School


Nine Thousand Years Hospital


No. 6 Middle School Wuhan


No.12 Middle School Wuhan


Perfect Sub Company


Public Censorate


Snow Beer Company


Tianmu Hot spring Holiday Club


Wisco HanKou Roll Forming Plant


Wuchang Supermarket


Wuchang Vehicle Factory


Wuhan Building Design Company


Wuhan Bus Company


Wuhan Construction Design Institute


Wuhan DongFen Honda Ltd Co


Wuhan Factory


Wuhan Iron Ore Gold Co


Wuhan Jinzi Complex Co.


Wuhan Mobile Company


Wuhan Railway Company


Wuhan University of Technology


Wushang Liangfan Linkage Ltd Co


XinSheng Tech Cooperation


XinZou Construction Corparation


YaTong Electrical Equipment Company Ltd



Word Count: 2474

Professor Stephen F. Myler PhD

Hubei University

Department of Psychology

Wuhan – P.R. China.


Selye H (1956) The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw Hill

Friedman M & Rosenman, R H. (1974) Type Behaviour and your Heart. New York: McGraw Hill
Holmes T.H. & Rahe, R.H. (1967) The Social Readjustment Rating Scale, Journal of Psychomatic Research Vol.11.

Gross, R. Psychology, The Science of Mind & Behaviour.4th Ed. Hodder Stoughton UK – Penn,y Quote (1996)

Apologies to any referenced material not acknowledged.