Go-Go-Going To Pieces In China

Frazzled managers are displaying all the classic signs of Western-style stress

As China guns it from planned to market economy, the professional class is starting to display the same symptoms of modern angst that appear daily in the corridors of America's office towers. Burnout. Eating disorders. Depression. Substance abuse. "For China, it's as if the world has completely flipped on its axis," says Russ Hagen, CEO of employee assistance firm Chestnut Global Partners.

The radical structural changes in the Chinese economy have left many workers suspended between the old world and the new. The pressure to compete for one's precarious place at work is straining relations with colleagues. Performance reviews once based on effort are now about results. Family used to rule. Now making money does. "There's this sense of frenzy," says Richard Xu, who runs a human resources association in Beijing. "People don't want to stop, because they could lose out on an opportunity."

If this were North America or Europe, a visit to the family shrink or company counselor might be in order. But this is China, where psychological therapy has long been anathema. Admitting you need help is just not done in a face-saving culture. That may explain in part the newfound spirituality among professionals in a land that still officially frowns on religion. Buddhism in particular is experiencing a revival among stressed-out urbanites seeking respite from the pressures of the office. So far, Beijing tolerates the trend.

The distrust of all things psychological hasn't deterred Western firms from trying to convince Chinese that a little therapy can go a long way. For several years multinationals have offered counseling to their expatriate managers. Increasingly, they're extending such benefits to local hires. The services range from helping employees find child care to relationship counseling to dealing with credit-card debt.

Now, U.S. employee-assistance firms are starting to sign up local clients. Chestnut Global Partners, which has new offices in Beijing, recently won a contract with Minsheng Bank, one of China's largest publicly traded banks. Chestnut quickly found that what works in the U.S. won't fly in China. Rather than behavioral counseling, the firm sells a "personal well-being service." Instead of going on about conflict management, Chestnut stresses "workplace harmony." And since Chinese workers are loath to meet one-on-one, the firm makes great use of online and group sessions. So far, employees have confronted the same issues that Americans struggle with: bad bosses, sagging job performance, disappointed spouses and kids. Chestnut reports that twice as many of its Chinese clients' employees take advantage of its services than do Americans. Progress, as always, comes with a price.

By Michelle Conlin, with Dexter Roberts in Beijing

— With assistance by Dexter Roberts

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