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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT