The Steep Cost of Long Hours

200212196-001By now you’ve surely heard the story of Moritz Erhardt.

On Aug. 15, the 21-year-old Bank of America intern was found dead in a shower cubicle at a student residential facility, after reportedly working for 72 straight hours at B of A Merrill Lynch’s investment banking division in London.

In the days since, many questions have been raised surrounding the work culture of the fast-paced financial sector, where employees—particularly junior-level associates—may feel compelled to keep punishing work schedules in hopes of securing their spot in a very competitive and profitable industry.

Bank of America is raising some questions of its own, recently announcing it had commissioned a “formal senior working group” to examine the organization’s working practices, with “a special focus on junior members of staff,” according to The Guardian.

Erhardt’s passing is certainly an extreme example, but the financial services realm is far from the only place where employees are working themselves ragged, sometimes to the point of putting their own physical and mental well-being at risk.

So, where’s the threshold? What’s the right amount of work? In a recent study, a Kansas State University researcher attempted to answer such questions. And, if her findings are any indication, the sweet spot may be in the 40-to-45 hours-per-week range.

Sarah Asebedo, a doctoral student at K-State, analyzed the association between “workaholism” and physical and mental health. Asebedo found that employees working more than 50 hours a week were more likely to experience diminished mental health—as measured by self-reported depression scores—and reduced physical well-being.

On the other hand, another study suggests spending less time at the office may not do all that much for employees.

Robert Rudolf, an assistant professor of economics at Korea University in Seoul, recently used data from an annual survey of 5,000 Korean households to analyze overall job and life satisfaction before and after changes in South Korean labor regulations reduced the workweek to five days and 40 hours a week. (Prior to 2004, employees in South Korea put in six-day, 44-hour weeks.)

According to the New York Times, Rudolf used a five-point scale—ranging from “very dissatisfied” to “very satisfied”—to determine workers’ happiness with their jobs and home lives. He found a reduction in hours had no bearing on either job or life satisfaction for employees of both sexes.

So, it seems there is no magic number of hours that will keep your workforce at its happiest and healthiest. But, a degree of flexibility may be the best option employers can offer, says Rudolf.

“I am a big fan of flexible working solutions with flex-time, part-time options, etc.,” he told the Times. “In my opinion, higher personal freedom about their work flanked with well-designed performance targets will make workers both happier and more productive.”

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