Betsy's Pretty Good Blog

Is a culture of long hours hurting your firm/business?

September 12, 2013

I know I’m a bit late to this discussion, but the death of Moritz Erhardt, an intern with Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, has sparked a lot of online commentary. It also got me to thinking about work culture inside CPA firms and other businesses where our members work.

Now I know that Moritz was interning in the finance division of banking, not a CPA firm, but the long hours culture isn’t unknown (and rewarded) in CPA firms and other businesses. It may not be as extreme as it was in this case, but we need to look at the downsides and see if it actually brings any benefit to the workplace. Also, this young man, by all accounts, was particularly driven internally and may not have allowed himself to acknowledge any problems.

Given all that, we still have the question about the assumption that long hours = exceptional productivity and dedication = the “best” employee. It’s interesting that this belief is so persistent, especially in light of all the recent discussion of how important innovation and creativity are to successful businesses. Innovation and creativity are known to require down time and space to think and explore.

So do long hours really equal exceptional productivity? One thing to consider is that spending long hours at work typically leads to less sleep and it is well-documented that sleep deprivation reduces productivity. Also, variation in productivity is completely normal. (We’ve all had days where we spend our time staring at a screen getting nothing done and also days where we produce brilliantly and consistently throughout the day.) It’s been clearly shown that working more hours after 40 increases errors and mistakes – 28% increase after a 10 hour day. (Makes you really wonder about hospital residents taking care of patients, doesn’t it?) Here’s one of the best short articles on work hours and productivity.

Apparently, at Bank of America in London, weeding out was done by watching who put in the most hours. Easy to measure, but definitely not any kind of indicator of quality or good fit. It only measures some kind of tolerance for self-punishment and maybe work addiction. The supervisors believed that those long hours reflect loyalty and commitment. So it looks to them an efficient way to weed out the undesirables or weak. Is working long hours really the characteristic we want in our employees? Don’t we really want thinkers, learners, relaters, creators?

Why does this myth persist in our work cultures?


Stephanie Chen commented on Mar. 8, 2014:
I think long hours help for a while, but eventually the law of diminishing returns kick in and work will fill the time that's available. Interesting take on the question!

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