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No more fake smiles: Can a Chinese company reduce stress with masks?

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(Read caption) Staff wearing masks during a work day at a property service company in Handan, China. The company holds a monthly relaxation day at the office using various themes such as a "faceless" day when workers wear masks so they don't have to use insincere expressions throughout the day.

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If you walked around some companies in Handan, in the Hebei province of Northern China, on Tuesday, you’d have been confronted by a sea of employees all wearing white masks. Some of the employees wore the “Guy Fawkes” masks also used by hacking group “Anonymous,” while others sported the robotic white covers worn by the character “No-Face” in the 2001 Japanese film, "Spirited Away."

The companies allow workers to have a monthly relaxation day, in order to “reduce pressure during working time,” according to ChinaFotoPress. This includes the face mask day, which is intended to let employees indulge in genuine though unseen facial expressions throughout the day. Even workers required to smile at customers on other days of the year are allowed to make whatever faces they like on face mask day.

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Concerns about stress in the Chinese workplace – particularly for white-collar workers – have been on the rise. Many Chinese workers struggle with work-life balance, according to a 2014 article in Bloomberg Business.

“We have noticed that excessive overtime in China has become an issue,” wrote Tim De Meyer, the director of the International Labour Organization’s China office, in an e-mail. “It is worrying as a physical and mental-health hazard.” The Chinese legal limit for overtime is two hours per day, but in a Beijing survey conducted by Mr. De Meyer, 60 percent of respondents admitted they worked more than two hours per day overtime. 

It is estimated that 600,000 people a year die from work-related stress and related effects a year in China. The concept of "death by overwork,” is known in China as "guolaosi." In nearby Japan, the legal term is "karoshi, which became legally recognized in the 1980s. Incidents such as the death of Li Jianhua, a director in China's Banking Regulatory Commission, who literally worked himself to death and passed on while attempting to finish a report in the early morning, have brought worldwide attention to the issue.

“In China, there’s still the belief that you do things for the development of the good of the nation, for development of the economy, to forget your own self,” said Yang Heqing, dean of the School of Labor Economics at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. “But don’t forget, overwork also causes harm to the nation and to the family.”

"As China marches its way toward unparalleled economic prominence on the world stage, many issues will stand in its way, including ... an increasingly beleaguered workforce," notes an article, titled "Working to Death in China," on The Diplomat website. Face mask day seems unlikely to do much to restore China's work-life balance, but perhaps any measure intended to increase worker comfort is a small step in the right direction.