The Neverending Workday

A pervasive cultural norm of work devotion leaves many employees with little time for family, friends, or sleep.

Edgar Su / Reuters

A spate of suicides among employees of Wall Street firms has focused attention on the pact between white-collar ambition and endurance. Young male bankers, seemingly with very successful lives ahead of them, are apparently buckling under the strain of doing deals at all hours. To fit in with the requirements for these high status jobs, employees sacrifice much more than their weekends: They lose friends, families, and neighborhood connections along the way.

They also lose sleep. Those handling the details of business negotiations are sometimes reportedly working up to 72 hours in a row in the pursuit of company profit. In any other situation, including criminal interrogation, the delirium that would ensue from such an ordeal would render most actions inadmissible in a court of law. It is hard to fathom how the same activities translate to ethical business practice.

Work cultures of long hours reflect a notion of professionalism based on athleticism, in which one’s pace and accomplishments exist to be bested. Like a marathon, the never-ending office day tests psychological will and bodily capacity in equal measure. But even casual runners know the value of a good night’s sleep. Without adequate rest the body just isn’t up to the challenge.

The association between work and athleticism is not just a matter of metaphor. Researchers monitored the pulse rate of workers running on treadmills to gauge fitness as far back as the 1910s. The idea that the body could be conditioned to ever greater efficiency informed the famous Hawthorne Studies of the 1930s, where doctors recorded the blood count, organ size, and sleeping patterns of young women in assembly jobs. Executives in the 1970s turned to jogging in an effort to reduce stress and fend off growing concerns about heart disease. Running was recognized for physical and mental health and for convenience: It is still seen as the most effective form of exercise for the time poor.

Today’s jogging-and-gym circuit suits a work culture that thrives on adrenaline. It acts as tonic for workers who are fearful of stepping off the treadmill and losing their rank in the company. Leslie Perlow captures these anxieties in the introduction to Sleeping With Your Smartphone. “If you stop working long hours and always being accessible,” she writes, “others will likely speed past you on the career ladder.” Chronically connected workplaces fuel the apprehension that you can never catch up if you leave. This is a major problem for companies whose employees consistently fail to use care entitlements or sabbatical programs.

From the Googleplex to the Foxconn dorm, management innovations have incrementally extended the embrace of the firm, eliminating the temporal and spatial distance that might allow workers to imagine a life beyond. This is why so many time-management manuals begin by advising readers to identify their personal life goals. The frantic pace of the under-resourced office perverts their sense of time. It demands they fixate only on the short-term. Last-minute crunches play with a person’s mind much like a restless night’s sleep: small problems become inflated to the point of urgency and panic, even though few things ever feel as dire with the perspective morning brings.

In the competitive environment of the firm, it is little wonder that workers resort to performance-enhancing drugs: the confidence boost of a cocaine spike or the soothing buzz of Friday night drinks. When so many jobs require social networking to maintain employability, these mood enhancers are a natural complement to the work day after 5pm. In an always-on world, professional credibility involves a judicious mix of just the right amount of uppers and downers to remain charming.

In addressing the long-hours culture of a global consulting firm, Perlow showed the substantial impact that one small innovation can make on an entire organization. Her study attempted what seemed an impossible ambition for high-octane workers dealing with needy clients—a modest amount of predictable time off for all team members. In her experiment, colleagues were forced to meet with each other and talk about their lives beyond work. Speaking openly about the struggles they shared in meeting multiple obligations allowed them a starting point to devise terms of engagement that would make the group’s overall workload collectively manageable.

Companies encourage the heroics of individual careers because they are relatively easy to reward. In the high-stakes game of promotion and preferment, singular personalities get the spoils, while the rest of the team is left cheering from the sidelines. Instead of initiating bright minds to endure grueling feats of prolonged exertion, the future of work has to involve a shift from careers to atmospheres: The priority should be to devise and build caring environments that inspire the best performances while allowing more people to flourish.