The overvaluing of overwork

August 29, 2013

Moritz Erhardt has become a tragic symbol. The 21-year-old summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch was found dead on Aug. 15 at his rented London apartment. There is no official report of what happened, but coworkers blogged that Erhardt died after working three consecutive 20-hour days. Whether or not that is true, the tragedy has prompted a worthwhile debate about the work culture in banking and other high-pressure professions.

Erhardt’s schedule was not extraordinary for the ambitious young people who are trying to advance on the fast track at investment banks, law firms, consultancies and other practitioners of long working hours. The normal career starts with a period of white-collar slavery: 80 or more hours a week of drudgery in air-conditioned offices, with occasional breaks for take-away meals. The tasks eventually become more interesting, but the years of mega-hours drag on. Later, workers often have lives of privileged desperation: lots of money, luxuriant houses and holidays, and a trail of damage.

Deaths from overwork are rare. But exhaustion, family breakdowns and substance abuse are common in high-stress jobs with ultra-long days. The extent of the gradual degradation of character – intelligent and interesting people reduced to narrow-minded careerists – is a matter of ongoing debate.

Long hours were once traditional in factories. That changed. So too it could change in the office, and more easily, since shorter workdays have less effect on output there. These professions don’t need or even obviously benefit from this cult.

So who is responsible for its perpetuation?

Employers deserve some blame. Human Resources departments could brief managers on the extensive psychological research about the damage of overwork. The excuse that mega-hours are somehow good for shareholders is both mistaken and feeble: workers should not suffer unduly just to keep profit up, and profit would not suffer if workers had a chance for a good night’s sleep.

One reason these practices continue is that there are so many would-be workers willing to endure them. Each intern position at top firms attracts hundreds of applicants. The few who are chosen, and then the even more select group who get professional positions, vie to put the most hours on the job. The post-midnight days are often described with a sort of grim satisfaction and pride – a mark of membership of a privileged group.

Fear of being fired or of losing out also keeps people working hard. However, anyone who is skilled enough to find a job at a leading bank or law firm could easily get a less all-consuming job at some other respectable employer. And while the lure of ultra-high pay is significant, young professionals could demand, and be given, more reasonable working conditions without sacrificing much income.

I think the culture of long hours can be traced back to something else – the status that now comes with overwork. This is a historical novelty. In almost all pre-industrial societies, the aristocratic life had ample leisure time, while very long working hours were a sign of poverty and a low social position – think Downton Abbey. That hierarchy – leisure above labour – made sense when hard work was necessary for survival.

Today, we have a new social hierarchy. A life of leisure is more often associated with shameful unemployment than with wealth and privilege, while the irreplaceable expert enjoys the highest social status. That status is demonstrated by the need, and the desire, to work long hours. The time on the job shows dedication, skills and the importance of the job.

If my theory is right, there’s an economic irony. The skills of most of the professionals who enjoy an elevated social status are real enough, but the social benefits of many of the long-hour roles are questionable. The hard grind of many bankers and lawyers does not translate into much gain for the productive economy.

There is also a social tragedy. One of the great gains of the modern economy – the reduction of toil – is being squandered. The labour-market elite, who help set the social standard of the good life, too often choose to put exhausting work, however pointless, before family, community and what used to be called the higher things in life. As a result, the work multiplies, and with it the sense that it should bring extravagant rewards.

The widespread, horrified response to Erhardt’s death shows that many people are concerned by the hours-culture. BofA Merrill is investigating working conditions for its young workers, with a view to encouraging cultural change. That’s a good first step. The overvaluing of overwork has gone too far.

This column has been updated with minor edits to improve clarity.



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

You should take a long look at Google (and other high-tech companies). They actually provide a long list of services to entice the [expected]long hours.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

There’s nothing wrong with working a lot. In fact, it can be rewarding. One only needs to find a way to recieve the benefits of that work. Of course, there in lies the problem. Most companies don’t care who does the real work, they want political flunkies. Actually, most don’t even know who does the real work since their is a heirarchy of imbecilic managers stacked up like crack addicts at the local crack house trying to find ways to take more of the workers endevours for themselves. So, work hard, but find a way to get the fruits of your labor. Most companies don’t care and won’t reward you so don’t expect that. Perhaps work for yourself more.

There is no CEO, CFO, or other manager who is more than a thief. They are not your friends and everything they say is intended to make you give them more of what you produce. Never forget that a fat angry selfish boss is the norm, not the exception.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

hey, if you want to have fun do what I do. Pick a few labor intensive projects around your house and do them, except, do it all manually and by yourself. So here’s why (it’s great fun). When your conservative neighbors see you toiling in your yard with a pick or a shovel or an ax, they will stop by and suggest alternatives. You summarily refuse because the way you are doing it is the cheapest. This has several benefits. First, you get exercise, secondly you get something done, and it really is cheap (although you have to be prepared for several months of work), and additionally this will utterly anger your conservative neighbors for a couple reasons. First you are doing something in a way that consumes the least amount of resources, and because conservatives hate to see anyone working hard if they are not getting a part of your labor benefits. Watch as many may offer you a job, but you need to refuse, since they will be exceptionally eager to destroy you for your sins. If your lucky they may have a stroke from the raised blood pressure, and the world will be a better place.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Work Smart, Not Hard!

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Very nicely written Mr. Hadas.

UauS says work smart not hard. That statement is of course true but the greater issue is to find a way to get away from the consuming culture.

I laugh, sometimes, at the boat club. Many people have to own these huge yachts. They can’t take them out though unless they have a “crew” of some sort as the boat is too large for one or two people to handle.

So it sits at the dock….mostly. A cocktail barge.

I own what I call a “pocket yacht” about 30′. Small for yacht club standards but affordable and easily handled by one person. I can go out alone if the mood strikes me. Since I didn’t go into debt for my boat I also took an early retirement so that I could enjoy some free time.

My father (who died sadly in his forties) gave me some sage advise when I was a boy. He said:

Be careful how you spend your time when you’re living, because you’re dead a long time’.

Think about it.

Posted by Missinginaction | Report as abusive

Our science informs us that there is only survival, evolution and the genes we pass on.
The rest are games in our mind.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

An interesting, thoughtful article. Underlying this destructive cult of excessive work in certain industries and professions is a desire for social status that puts us only on a par with chimpanzees and other animals who are strongly concerned with their place in the social hierarchy. To the extent that we see through such illusory life goals as status and fame, we become more genuinely human because we use our unique human capacity for reason and can choose to live by higher values such as the desire to benefit our fellow human beings. Many businessmen of the past – William Lever, Robert Owen, the Cadbury brothers come to mind – understood this and were able to work hard but happily as a result. They also understood the need for balance in life, for leisure and pleasure as well as toil, and embodied this insight in how they treated their workers. Some modern employers seem to share this understanding, but too few.

Posted by JamesGoddard | Report as abusive

Over half a century ago, one of the biggest concerns over the labor force was that they would have to learn to cope with more leisure time. Instead, we’ve created a huge Pee-On class of 99% of Americans, many who work more than 40-hour weeks, some paid for “voluntary overtime”. They aren’t “slaves” because they’re getting paid, even if it’s below subsistence level. Slavery was better, because hungry and ill slaves couldn’t work the fields.

It’s utterly amazing how many of these Pee-Ons continue to vote for the Plutocracy, the “job creaters”, and against their own self interest. The Idiocracy has arrived, driven by the One Percenters Club.

“Let them eat cake!”

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Nihil novi sub sole. Tragedy of the commons was there even before the commons and the herders. Animals who grazed the great planes of Asia (and North America – but I’ve never seen the latter) embarked on a strategy of doing so in herds, where the animals at the head got plenty of time to get the better straws, gaze around in almost wanton delight and carry on while the ones at the rear had their necks bent down all the time and were loosing time and stamina in search of an edible straw left. With a human herder (whose interest was to have possibly all the animals well fed) there came a change if form of enforced changes of direction, isolation of imposing bulls etc. Natural (emerging) order is one to which intelligent creature can devise a more effective alternative.

Posted by Suav58 | Report as abusive

With such inane tasks to perform, I’m sure many of these interns will have adopted already the Alex Masterley approach, and will be reading Reuters.

Contributions from some of them would be welcome!

Posted by JohnWigg | Report as abusive

“Work harder, not smarter” is the unwritten rule at many companies. Most managers don’t take the time to evaluate the quality of work done by employees, but only see the appearance of hard work. That being said, total immersion is the best way to learn, so some periods of very intense effort are required to do well, but it should not be a continuous effort for periods longer than a few months.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive