Skip to main content

Say 'no' to extreme work culture

By Andre Spicer, Special to CNN
August 26, 2013 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT