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 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT