Balancing act: Banks move away from the 'cult of overwork'
Matt Rourke, Associated Press
One of the advantages of producing a weekly column for a dozen years is that regular readers have learned my interests and often send me articles that make good column fodder.
Even better is when those articles espouse an idea that I wholeheartedly support.
This piece, by James Surowiecki, talks about changes to an "unspoken pact" between entry-level bankers and Wall Street firms that has traditionally amounted to this: "in exchange for reasonably high-paying jobs and a shot at obscene wealth, young analysts agreed to work 15 hours a day, and forgo anything resembling a normal life."
However, Surowiecki writes, that may be changing. Since last October, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse have told analysts that they should take at least a few weekend days off every month.
"These changes may sound small, but, in the context of the Street, they’re positively radical," the New Yorker piece says. "Alexandra Michel, a former Goldman associate who is now on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, published a nine-year study of two big investment banks and found that people spent up to a hundred and twenty hours a week on the job."
Surowiecki proceeds to draw parallels between these analysts and other so-called "knowledge workers" who seem to work longer and longer hours these days — and often see that as a badge of honor.
"The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality," he writes. "Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level."
These points are absolutely correct, and I know that from personal experience. In fact, an embarrassing personal experience emphasized this reality for me.
First, here's some background. I wake up at about 5:15 a.m. each day so I can have time to exercise, get ready for work and drop children off at two different schools while still making it to the office by about 8:15 a.m. This means that, in order to get my bare minimum of six hours of sleep (yes, I know that's not enough!), I really need to be in bed by 11 p.m. each night.
Usually I do a good job of hitting that bedtime. But one Monday night a couple of months ago, I decided to go to a late movie with my wife. I rationalized that it was a movie I really wanted to see, and it wouldn't be in theaters much longer. I also figured that, since it was early in the week, I wouldn't be tired at work on Tuesday even if I didn't get six hours of sleep. After all, I used to operate on four or five hours of sleep all the time, back in my college days and early career!
Needless to say, the day after the movie was a disaster. I was tired all day, struggling to focus on my tasks and get things done. The low point came after lunch — always a tough time for me, concentration-wise — when I had a one-on-one meeting scheduled with one of my team members.
About 15 minutes into the meeting, I realized that I was struggling to keep my eyes open. The man in the meeting with me could tell I was having problems, and he did his best to keep me engaged, but it was a losing battle.
After the meeting, I pushed through the last couple of hours of the workday, then came home and collapsed on the couch for a brief nap.
Following a better night's sleep, I was alert enough on Wednesday to be properly mortified at my behavior the previous day and to offer a sincere apology to my co-worker. He was, thankfully, quite forgiving.
Although my work-time sleepiness was due to a bad choice, and not to overwork, the lesson I learned still applies. When I don't get enough sleep, my productivity at work takes a serious nosedive. No matter how many hours I spend at the office on such a day, I'm not likely to get much real work done.
I've seen the same scenario play out with co-workers over the years, especially when they come to work sick or pull an all-nighter to complete a big project. Lack of rest leads to trouble concentrating and a significant dip in productivity.
The problem is that, whether you're an investment banker, a journalist or some other knowledge worker, our culture seems to glorify those who sacrifice sleep and their own physical well-being to work longer hours.
As Surowiecki puts it in the New Yorker article, "Grinding out hundred-hour weeks for years helps bankers think of themselves as tougher and more dedicated than everyone else. And working 15 hours a day doesn’t just demonstrate your commitment to a company; it also reinforces that commitment.
"Over time, the simple fact that you work so much becomes proof that the job is worthwhile, and being in the office day and night becomes a kind of permanent initiation ritual. The challenge for Wall Street is: can it still get bankers to run with the pack if it stops treating them like dogs?"
That same question applies to our society. Can we accept a cultural change in which we value people who work hard and are productive, even if they put in a more reasonable number of hours at the office and try to build meaningful lives outside of work?
I'm glad to see any progress in that direction. If investment banks can do it, I hope we'll also see other companies place more emphasis on work-life balance.
If they do, I believe we'll be able to build a workforce that is healthier and happier and as productive as it always has been.
In fact, we might even find we're more productive when we're not falling asleep in our cubicles all the time.