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At some companies, clocking in the most time is applauded. (Dmytro Panchenko/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
At some companies, clocking in the most time is applauded. (Dmytro Panchenko/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

OVERWORK

Why do we work ourselves to death? Add to ...

What will you risk to get ahead?

It’s a question you likely ask yourself many times a day without realizing it. Do you skip a workout to respond to an onslaught of e-mails or miss an important family event to manage a customer’s demands? We often subconsciously weigh the pros and cons before choosing what we hope will be the best solution.

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On rare occasions, decisions about what’s right and wrong in terms of how far to go to reach a goal lead to unexpected consequences. That may have been the case in the tragic story of a 21-year-old intern at Merrill Lynch in London.

The facts about the Moritz Erhardt case are sparse. The German exchange student had finished a semester at the University of Michigan’s business school and was near the end of a highly sought after and fiercely competitive internship at the London bank. According to reports, he worked through the night eight times in two weeks, including three consecutive nights before he collapsed in his apartment and died. He reportedly suffered from seizures, which could be brought on by exhaustion, and the cause of death has yet to be determined. Regardless, the news media and blogosphere have already cast judgment that the ambitious young man died from overwork.

Unfortunately, we live in culture that applauds overworking. Common complaints, such as “I am killing myself at work” are usually met with a pat on the back rather than a look of concern. Although rare, extreme cases of overwork leading to death are not unheard of (the Japanese even have a word for it: karoshi). The case of Mr. Erhardt should spur examination of the unwritten cultural rules that equate extreme work practices with success, and idleness with failure.

John Trougakos, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, believes the ethos encouraging overworking is becoming more pronounced.

From an organizational perspective, he sees more companies adopting an “austerity mentality” in which they want to “get more for less,” which increases pressure on employees.

“There is a shift from the well being of the worker to the well being of the bottom line. In physical labour you know when you are tired. We don’t pay the same attention to psychological fatigue. So we tend to ignore it,” he said.

To tackle this problem, companies could make many changes, such as giving employees more autonomy on how to use their time. Mr. Trougaskos’s research shows that this lessens people’s fatigue. Also, companies could create a corporate culture that supports well being, for example encouraging staff to take a break at lunchtime.

Not having enough hours in the day is the “new normal,” especially among professional services and investment firms, said Tammy Heermann, principal of global leadership development at Knightsbridge in Toronto.

She sees a shift in which professionals, even lawyers and accountants, are being asked to add extra tasks to their job, such as networking, business development and community building. Combined with the other talents that might secure them a promotion, the average workweek simply isn’t enough time to get everything done.

Adapting to this new normal is no easy feat. But there are tools employees can employ, including learning to say “no” strategically and creating some healthy boundaries.

“Get it through your head that ‘being done’ or ‘finishing’ or ‘accomplishing everything on your to do list’ is not life as we know it anymore,” Ms. Heermann said.

“Every day requires prioritization in a way that hasn’t been required in the past. You need to carve out milestones, strategic priorities and live with the fact that some things can’t get done. Then communicate your focus, get feedback and readjust if necessary,” she added.

Any change in corporate culture will not take place overnight, especially in environments where excessive hours are a long-held tradition.

“I was one of those people. I would work around the clock,” recalled Whitney Johnson, a Harvard Business Review blogger and co-founder of Rose Park Advisors in Boston.

Ms. Johnson, who started her Wall Street career as a secretary before moving up to investment banker, noted that grueling hours weren’t limited to the financial world. She watched her husband engage in the same behaviour when he worked on his doctorate in molecular biology at Columbia University. The same applied to their friends who were medical residents.

At the time, Ms. Johnson didn’t think much of it; it was just “paying your dues.” But her perspective about working too long, and too hard, has changed over the years.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t do this anymore but the reality is that for very competitive jobs, people still expect it and many will do it if they want the job badly enough,” she said.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah.eichler@femme-o-nomics.com

Follow on Twitter: @LeahEichler

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