Professor Ioana Lupu, ESSEC Business School, and Senior Lecturer Mayra Ruiz-Castro, University of Roehampton Faculty of Business and Law, explore the overwork culture in professional firms and two recent factors – remote working and unionisation – that might tip the scales towards a sounder work-life balance.
The Way to Changing an Overwork Culture: Unions or individual action? By Ioana Lupu and Mayra Ruiz-Castro. Related research: Role Distancing and the Persistence of Long Work Hours in Professional Service Firms, Ioana Lupu, Mayra Ruiz-Castro, Bernard Leca, Journal of Organization Studies, SAGE.
Badge of honour?
When I’m not that busy, I get frustrated… you think, “Oh, I wish I had more to do to keep me going.” You become a little bit bored I think, when you work so intensively for a period and then you have a bit of downtime, it’s, ‘Oh, where’s the next thing going to come from?’ You become a little bit of a junkie for a deadline and for work. It’s quite hard to switch off (Nicola , partner, accounting firm).
During our research on audit and law firms and other white-collar jobs, we heard these words countless times. Even though, to some extent, most professionals are aware of the negative effects of overwork on our health, family relationships and social life, many people have difficulties slowing down.
In previous eras, leisure and not necessarily hard work was the hallmark of professional elites. Nowadays, paradoxically, being busy is a badge of honour and workaholism a praiseworthy addiction. Employers not only expect their workforce to perform well at their jobs, but also expect them to make themselves available around the clock and prioritize their jobs over other important aspects of life such as family, friends, hobbies or health.
The intensification of home working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has put additional pressure on some people to continuously make themselves available on screen. Those who comply with such expectations are deemed “ideal workers”, and they are rewarded, whether that is with a promotion, a salary increase, or the assignment of important projects. As a result, many professionals come to believe that there is only one way to show their commitment, dedication and worthiness – and that is by unquestionably working long hours.
Make it or fake it
The situation might be more serious among interns and juniors in professional firms. Excessive working hours and overwork are widespread in professional service firms and juniors have little control over their schedules having to work against the deadlines imposed by their managers and their clients. The death of a young investment banker in London in 2013 attracted considerable press attention when he collapsed in the shower after having “pulled eight all-nighters in two weeks”, as reported in an article entitled “Slavery in the City ”. Since then, things have changed very little.
Elite professional firms in law, audit (in particular the Big Four: EY, PwC, Deloitte and KPMG) and consulting (Accenture, McKinsey, BCG etc.), constitute one of the royal avenues of entry into working life. These firms are known for their strong, sect-like cultures which demand compliance or exit. Resistance to the organizational norm of long working hours is usually penalized through limited career opportunities and recognition. Thus, open resistance to long hours is unheard of in these firms. Individual resistance is most of the time hidden under the veil of cynicism and irony and in order to avoid career penalties with some people fake working 80-hour weeks .
However, most professionals, especially junior professionals work themselves very hard, competing with their peers for a progressively smaller number of positions, and at each stage the under-performers are culled. Partnership, the ultimate prize in these firms, is very distant and uncertain. Many recruits hope to make it after the first 4-5 years and see their passage through the firm as ramps towards managerial positions in industry, and in jobs with more manageable hours. A partner in a City law firm reminisces about his start in the profession:
I was working hard putting in the hours, within each step I’m working harder, I’m putting in more hours and, you know, there must come a point where it’s impossible… to work any harder. … if that starts to become the norm that once every couple of weeks you work through the night or once every week you work through the night, then it starts to become normal…
Rock around the digital clock
New technologies, enabling connectivity around the clock, have made things worse. Work-home boundaries have further blurred for those professionals who have been working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic. As one employee in an investment bank, father of two, recognizes: “I now invest in work the more-than-two-hours of transportation per day I used to have. Moreover, while before I could take some time to read or listen to music while on my way home, now I just jump from my home desk to the kitchen to prepare dinner for my family”.
There is no respite anymore, work and home chores follow each other in a never-ending succession. The risk is that many people forget to switch off or simply do not know how to do it anymore.
I find it very difficult to just … do nothing. Like last night … I got home early, well 7. Put the kids to bed. My husband was out. And instead of just going, “I’m just going to watch television and go (sigh) relax” I was thinking, “All right what do I need to do? … And I think that’s almost become a cycle that I need to try and break because it’s like everything is too highly intensive. And so I need to sort of find a way to just go, “All right, just stop” and actually go to the gym or watch television … … Or just relax. … Because as, you almost have to make yourself switch the off button. Switch, yes, yes. Because, yeah, yeah. You’re getting to such a, a rhythm. It’s difficult to get off (laugh) (Leanne, Director, accounting firm).
Our research has shown that some professionals engage compulsively with their work and even try to hide their excessive engagement from their families. In the interviews we conducted, some lawyers told us that they would “hide in the bathroom with their phone” to call a client on Christmas day or hide from their partner to check her work messages while on holiday.
A small band of individuals
Whilst many people struggle to stop these negative habits, we identified a small group of people in professional firms that have questioned the need to work long hours  and implemented changes in their working habits. We found that difficult situations (for example a serious illness or bereavement) prompt people to start reflecting on their priorities and behaviour. Through these reflections, they also come to realize that work might be stealing their lives, such as Kate, a London lawyer who quit her well-paying job in the City for a quieter life in the countryside. Kate experienced back problems due to the lack of physical activity and recounted in detail how the years of overwork had taken a toll on her health and wellbeing:
If I think over time, what that [overwork] has taken out of me physically is really worrying… I used to very often just go to toilets and look in the mirror and just think: ‘this job is aging me, visibly aging me’, because I’m having to work such long hours, get so little sleep and then obviously had this relatively unhealthy lifestyle as well because you’re doing the sort of social side of things … you were expected to go out and drink and, you know, it’s not really an option or it certainly wasn’t when I was a trainee … I’ve abused myself for so long. (Kate, Senior Associate, Law firm).
Once professionals have put things into perspective and critically questioned their situation, they start considering what could be different and implement changes in their working lives, whether taking on a new role within the same organization that is less time-demanding or making informal changes to work patterns – for example, committing not to work on weekends. These initiatives, although useful for those individuals who implement them, remain individual initiatives which do not manage to durably influence the long work hours culture in professional firms.
Overwork: Lessons from the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up a space for individual and group reflection. Many people were suddenly forced to ask themselves important questions about the meaning and priorities in their work and private lives. Because employees and managers and their clients were all relegated to working from home, we are currently witnessing a natural experiment on flexibility and priority resetting.
We now hear some voices that question pre-COVID detrimental work habits. For example, the Fatherhood Institute (2020) shows that fathers are very positive about the additional gift of time with their children and want to produce this durably post-COVID-19. Campaigns such as Flex-for-All have (rightly) taken off. After having been trialled successfully at Microsoft Japan (40 % productivity increase) , the four-day week is back on the agenda of companies (Unilever New Zealand is due to start a 12-month experiment without cutting the salaries of the 81 employees involved in the experiment ) and politicians all over Europe are voicing support for a four-day week. They argue that this could help economies recover from the coronavirus pandemic, boost mental health and help the environment.
This trend may be currently marginal, but many people dream that the new normal following this dark COVID-19 period will bring about a better work-life balance.
From one voice to many
Whilst we observed individual action being taken to tackle long work hours, the current Covid-19 crisis is allowing the manifestation of collective action, previously unseen in professional firms. Historically, these firms have enjoyed little or no union activity. However, in 2020, a union to “defend the social rights of employees and better sharing of added value” was created at EY & Associés France (one of the four largest global audit firms), tells us Marc Verret, senior auditor and union representative.
As noted by Marc Verret, the compliance with long work hours was based on an unwritten contract, established decades ago between firms and employees stipulating that high workload would be generously compensated by remuneration. However, salaries have not increased much in the last decade in Big 4 audit firms and these firms have started to lose their appeal in favour of consulting firms which offer much better pay. Thus, at EY & Associés, the union believes that this contract is no longer being respected. At the heart of this initiative there is a feeling of social inequity not distant from other social demands such as Occupy Wall Street or Los Indignados. “For the last ten years, the salary scale has not changed, whereas hours have stayed the same or even increased. Compared to that, the salaries of the top partners in the firm have increased by approximately 30% over the same period,” says Marc Verret.
This is not the only attempt at collective change seen in the last few years in large companies. In 2021, software engineers at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, announced the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). Although the AWU remains a rare case of unionization among tech firms and firms in general, professionals working for other companies are watching and, in some cases, taking direct inspiration from these initiatives .
As individual initiatives have not succeeded in changing the long working hours culture in organizations, the way to go about it may be collective and social. Thus, unions such as the one recently created at EY France may be able to bring about a better work-life balance for all employees and more equitable remuneration. Moreover, governmental support for the implementation of a four-day working week could finally transform the way professional firms – and their employees – approach an overwork culture.
-  Pseudonyms are used in this article to protect research participants’ identities.
-  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/slavery-city-death-21-year-old-intern-moritz-erhardt-merrill-lynch-sparks-furore-over-long-hours-and-macho-culture-banks-8775917.html
-  https://hbr.org/2015/04/why-some-men-pretend-to-work-80-hour-weeks
-  Our study recently published in Organization Studies (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0170840620934064) involved conducting close to 200 in-depth interviews with 78 professionals who work in the London offices of two global law and accounting firms. We spoke with an equal number of men and women, most of whom were between 30 and 50 years old and were in either middle or senior management roles. Most of them had at least one dependent child.
-  https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/04/microsoft-japan-four-day-work-week-productivity
-  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/01/unilever-new-zealand-to-trial-four-day-working-week
-  https://www.businessinsider.com/google-union-alphabet-workers-tech-activism-labor-in-2021-2022-1, retrieved April 10, 2022.
- Link up with Ioana Lupu and Mayra Ruiz-Castro on LinkedIn
- Browse Ioana and Mayra’s portfolio of research and publications
- Read a related article: Presenteeism: A bad business proposition
- Discover and study at ESSEC Business School France-Singapore-Morocco.
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