ByteDance worker dies after collapsing at gym, again raising 996 discussion on Chinese social media

Tik Tok logos are seen on smartphones in front of a displayed ByteDance logo in this illustration taken on Nov 27, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters file

A young ByteDance employee in his late 20s died Wednesday (Feb 23) afternoon, according to two internal company memos seen by the South China Morning Post, which said the person collapsed after a workout at a company gym.

The company, China's most valuable unicorn and the owner of short video platform TikTok, confirmed the authenticity of the documents but did not offer details about the incident.

"We're extremely saddened by the passing of our colleague and extend our deepest condolences to our colleague's family and friends," a ByteDance representative said. "We will do our utmost to support our colleague's family."

No reason has been given for the employee's death, but it has again drawn attention to the pressures that technology workers face in China.

The ByteDance worker, surnamed Wu, started to feel dizzy at around 7pm on Monday after an hour-long workout, according to the first memo sent out on Wednesday morning.

He told a coach at the gym that he might be feeling the symptoms of low blood sugar, so he was given a glass of sweetened water. Two security guards certified in first aid were called for help, and Wu was sent to a hospital within half an hour, the memo said.

The second memo sent Wednesday afternoon said Wu passed away at 1:43pm, 41 hours after he was sent to the hospital.

Before his death, Wu's profile on Feishu, ByteDance's office collaboration software called Lark in English, was changed by a user who identified herself as the employee's wife. Wu is "gone forever", she wrote on the profile.

The incident renewed discussions on Chinese social media about the pressures of working for Big Tech companies and the expected long hours referred to as 996 - an unofficial but common schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days per week. The incident was the 12th top trending topic on the microblogging platform Weibo on Wednesday morning.

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Wu's death comes just weeks after the sudden death of a 25-year-old content moderator for Bilibili. The video streaming company said the employee's death was not caused by overwork, as the person had worked normal hours in the week prior.

In another highly publicised incident in December 2020, a 22-year-old employee at Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo collapsed while walking home after midnight and later died.

Some sudden deaths of technology workers have been caused by cardiac arrest, a leading cause of death in China. Sudden cardiac deaths, caused by a loss of heart function, account for around 500,000 deaths per year in the country, an average of about 1,500 deaths per day, across all age groups, according to a 2020 report from China's National Centre for Cardiovascular Diseases.

Health issues at Chinese Big Tech companies, which usually offer employees higher-than-average salaries with demanding work targets, have been under increasing public scrutiny in recent years. The 996 shorthand has become an infamous topic in the country and a constant target of criticism.

More recently, China's largest tech firms have been announcing measures to cut down on overtime for employees. Last year, ByteDance and rival Kuaishou Technology said they ended a schedule known as big week/small week, which required people to work a six-day week every fortnight.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.