Skip to main content

Say 'no' to extreme work culture

By Andre Spicer, Special to CNN
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Mon August 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andre Spicer: Intern's death casts spotlight on extreme work culture in finance industry
  • Research shows that long working hours have negative effect on people, Spicer says
  • He says extreme hours are bad for employees, for communities and even for companies
  • Spicer: The most productive countries often have the shortest work hours

Editor's note: Andre Spicer is professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University London.

(CNN) -- The tragic death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has cast a spotlight on the extreme work culture in the financial industry.

The hours that Erhardt had been working are not unusual. Many finance professionals often work into the wee hours of the morning. Their weekends are spent recovering from grueling workweeks. Their holidays are spent constantly checking in with the office. The result is that work begins to take up nearly every waking hour. There is little time left for life.

The extreme work culture used to be the preserve of a few elite professions, such as banking or law. Now it seems to be spreading. Employees in many jobs are being asked to make themselves constantly available. Partly, it's because new technologies allow people to be connected and reachable at all times.

But it comes at a huge cost. There is a significant body of research that shows long working hours have negative physical and psychological effects on people.

A recent study by professor Alexandra Michel tracked investment bankers over a nine-year period. These bankers would routinely work from early morning to well past midnight. To cope with these hours, many became gym junkies, taking to the treadmill after midnight for an hourlong run. However, after about seven years of this relentless grind, the bankers began to suffer serious psychological and physical breakdowns.

Death sparks debate over work hours

In addition to damaging the body and mind, long hours at work cut people off from their family and friends. People who spend most of their waking hours at work or dealing with work-related activities have little time to build and nurture relationships outside of work.

Their intimate relationships with family can become strained. Their friendships can become weak. If something goes wrong, they may feel isolated and helpless because they lack a healthy ecosystem for emotional support. The result is that their social network withers and, over time, can die.

Extreme hours have been proven to be unhealthy for workers. They are also bad for communities.

If days are spent only working, then there is little time to put into local clubs, faith groups and associations. Harvard professor Robert Putnam has pointed out that the long working hour culture has led to a stunning decline in the numbers of people who are members of clubs and associations. It has effectively weakened the fabric of our communities. People are increasingly cut off, to the extent that it's common not to know your neighbors or anyone in your neighborhood.

What is perhaps most surprising is that long hours are not even good for companies.

The most productive countries among the developed economies often have the shortest work hours. Employees in Germany and France work less hours but get more done. Their British counterparts spend much longer at work but produce far less. Not only that, when people are tired from long hours, they tend to make more irrational and risky decisions.

A recent study by the Swedish sociologist Roland Paulsen has shown that long hours at work also lead to the prevalence of unproductive "empty work" such as checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos or even undertaking personal projects at the office. It's possible that these are ways for employees to show resistance.

There are so many good reasons to end the extreme work culture. But how can it be done?

A first step is for companies to introduce policies and practices that stop employees from working through the night. These might include having work-life balance programs, or closing the doors to the office at a reasonable hour or banning e-mail traffic after a particular time at night.

As important as these top-down changes are, employees need to instigate bottom-up changes. These require us to avoid modeling and encouraging the practice of working long hours among new recruits. We have to make it acceptable to say "no" to an extreme work culture.

Remember, we work to live, not live to work.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andre Spicer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT