Sops for overworked bankers miss real problem

June 3, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Banks are vying with each other to retain talented staff, especially younger ones. While UBS now offers employees two hours of personal time a week, Morgan Stanley is dangling paid sabbaticals for newly-promoted vice presidents. If only it all meant that gruelling work cultures were going out of fashion.

These innovations are almost revolutionary in a sector better known for demanding very long hours in return for very high pay. While two hours a week may not sound much, UBS can argue it has picked a realistic goal that makes life a bit easier for employees. Banks may even succeed in ensuring there is no stigma attached to taking advantage of such opportunities. But companies, in finance and well beyond, will always be tempted to wring more out of fewer people.

The real problem for work-life balance isn’t mean bosses, but short-termism. The chair of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said on June 2 that many businesses are too focused on keeping shareholders happy in the here and now and spend too little time improving their long-term prospects. While his worry is that such behaviour holds back employment and economic growth, Dijsselbloem’s views chime with those of Larry Fink, the boss of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

Fink in February urged chief executives of companies in which BlackRock invests to resist the “powerful forces of short-termism”. Instead, he asked them to spell out long-term strategic plans, which could include how they intended to deal with the competitive landscape, how they were innovating, where they were investing, and how they were developing talent.

Some bosses would no doubt love to get off the treadmill of quarterly reporting. This probably isn’t possible in a world moving towards more, not less, transparency. Still, there is plenty of scope for investors, companies, regulators and governments to place more emphasis on the long term. When they do, the number of hours employees spend at their desks will seem far less important than how much value they create over the course of their career. Thinking long-term would likely do more to restore work-life balance than the most well-intentioned perks.

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