The costs of the ‘always-on’ culture to individuals and firms with important caveats

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Managerial pressure, technology, economic incentives and psychological drivers: it’s easy to understand why the ‘always-on’ culture continues to dominate in professional services.

As Sarah Green Carmichael suggests, when these factors are combined they “produce a cocktail that is simply too intoxicating to overcome.”

What isn’t so easy to understand is how leaders of professional services firms can continue to turn a blind eye to the very real costs to their people and their firms created by this culture of overwork.

At an individual level, professional services employees often tell us they feel ‘trapped’ in a relentless cycle of responsiveness. They are unable to see a long-term future at their firm where the expectation of working long hours appears unrelenting and unsustainable. They become disengaged and dissatisfied.

Many suffer from ‘Sunday Night Blues’ and are left with the heart-wrenching choice of deciding between their family and personal life or their work commitments.

Eventually the expectations of work can lead to stress, burn-out, breakdowns in personal relationships, alcohol dependence and heart disease. This quote from an article by Erin Read neatly – and grimly – illustrates this point:

They [professional services employees interviewed] complained to me of children crying when they missed their soccer games, of poor health and substance addictions caused by how they worked, and of a general sense of feeling “overworked and underfamilied.”

Writing in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki highlights research carried out on two investment banks by Alexandra Michel, herself a former Goldman Sachs associate. Michel found that the effects of overwork are cumulative and that:

“Bankers started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.”

Even for the most hard-hearted of professional services leaders, apathetic to the plight of their staff members, surely the potential commercial costs of the prevailing ‘always-on’ culture cannot be ignored?

Take the costs associated with replacing lost talent, for example. When employees are disengaged and unhappy, staff turnover is likely to rise, along with the costs associated with replacing this talent.

To compound the issue, firms will continue to lose talent if fewer choose to return to work from taking a career break.

Many are still put off returning by the work expectations to which they will return and the sacrifices they will have to make to their home life in order to keep up, neatly illustrated in a recent interview with the BBC, by a senior HR Director who had returned to work after having a child:

“Sadly, the year I returned took the shine off for me… Gradually, it became obvious that my employers still needed a lot of face-time. I could see that I was going to be left out of key meetings and opportunities by rigidly sticking to the hours I was paid for…I accepted meetings and calls on my days off. I dialled into calls while my baby was asleep, praying she wouldn’t wake up. I worked in any snatched moments I could find. No matter what your hours, there was an expectation that if you wanted to progress, you had to be ‘always on’. It just wasn’t sustainable.”

As the ‘always-on’ culture proliferates, firms could soon see the costs associated with presenteeism (productivity loss, poor health, exhaustion) become as high as those associated with absenteeism.

Through our own experience we have also seen how the prevailing ‘always-on’ culture demotes other essential business activities – such as professional development – down the order of priority to the detriment of the organisation.

Research has found that being relentlessly connected to work impacts cognitive performance, interpersonal communication, decision making and an individual’s ability to manage their emotional reactions – all skills that are critical in professional services.

As Surowiecki points out:

Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level.” 

If professional services workers cannot perform at a high cognitive level, it is almost inevitable that this will affect the quality of client work. The question for leaders of professional services firms is, at the point the client states his dissatisfaction, do you simply blame the underperforming staff member or question the wider ‘always-on’ culture? 

Important caveats

There are some important caveats that we should mention here in case you think we are completely out of touch or naïve about the reality of working in a professional services environment.

Firstly, of course there will always be work deadlines and there will always be peak periods or crises when you have to work long hours. However, this should be the exception and not the rule. Too often in professional services, the reverse is true.

Secondly, we recognise that working long hours isn’t always a path to disengagement. As author Ron Friedman points out: “Anyone who has experienced sitting in an empty office on a Saturday morning can attest, freely choosing to work on the weekend is a completely different psychological experience than being expected to do so.” Again, we would argue that weekend working should be the exception and not the expectation.

Also, as we noted before, there are many people in professional services who enjoy working hard, who relish the adrenaline buzz of working at a furious pace and travelling around the world meeting clients. There is nothing wrong with this, except as we have shown, when it becomes the standard that everyone is expected to follow.

Finally, we also recognise that there are many consultants and professional advisors who are happy to work long hours during the week, particularly when they are away from home at a client’s site or in a hotel room, as this enables them to finish slightly earlier on a Friday or to enjoy a weekend without working.

Read Part 3. What can individuals and their firms do to mitigate the ‘always-on’ culture?

Special Report: Is it worth it? Examining the ‘always-on’ culture in professional services:

Intro: Is it worth it? The ‘always-on’ culture of professional services

1. Why the ‘always-on’ culture continues to dominate in professional services

2. The costs of the ‘always-on’ culture to individuals and firms and important caveats

3. What can individuals and their firms do to mitigate the ‘always-on’ culture?

4. Challenging the ‘always-on’ culture – lead from the front

5. Is it worth it? Is the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services worth the cost?