What are high-performers going to do now that addictive overwork is losing its allure?
Not overwork as in 10 hours a day and the odd Sunday at the office. Or consecutive Zoom meetings, with you feeling a bit tiredy-wiredy at the end of the day. I mean Apex Predator overwork. The kind that young doctors, lawyers and investment bankers endure as a rite of passage. I mean working 95 hours a week every week, with five hours sleep a night.
That’s what a group of first-year Goldman Sachs analysts in London complained about last month. They all claimed this regimen was taking a toll on their physical and mental health, with three-quarters of them saying they are “victims of workplace abuse.”
Were they fired? Terminated with extreme prejudice?
Indeed not. As the Financial Times noted: “Their protest captured the spirit of the moment. A string of banks have since sent memos and published press releases committing to changing the way staff work.”
What made the protest by Goldman’s ‘baby MBA’s’ so effective is that it took the form of a slide deck the firm uses in its client presentations. Both the numbers and the conclusions are crushing. Most of them hit the pillow at 3 a.m. (even in COVID times). Most would never recommend that a friend work at Goldmans. As one of them noted: “The sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress…I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse.”
Hold on. Ever since these professions were professions, they’ve promoted excellence through exhaustion. You know the price going in. No one’s forcing you to work here.
But COVID is changing this most established of protocols to money and power and glory. Forget that lack of sleep is a reliable predictor of poor performance, or this irony that thrives in high-performance cultures. Forget the entrenched stupidity that says: “We will do everything to crush you, but if you survive, great for both of us.”
I remember the early years with my wife, the doctor. She’d get called at 2 in the morning to deliver a baby. Often she’d not get back till 7 or 8, when I was just waking up. This would happen two or three nights a week. The shocking part for me was that I couldn’t tell if she’d been up all night or was working on 3 hours sleep. She’d trained herself “not to be tired.” She also didn’t look tired. If I had three hours of sleep or no sleep at all like she did, believe me, you’d know. I’d know too.
But someone must have figured out that persistently exhausted and distracted doctors tend to make bad decisions. So today, medical residents are limited both in how many hours they can work each week and in the length of their shifts.
The Goldman Sachs uprising isn’t the first one. Back in 2013, a Bank of America intern died of overwork. This led to calls for change (as well as to an episode of the series, Industry, now streaming on HBO). But nothing happened.
This time, one investment firm is offering free Peloton exercise bikes. Credit Suisse is giving its junior bankers $20,000 bonuses. Others are hiring more staff.
In a perverse way, all this reminds me of the old cartoon: “Beatings will continue until morale improves.”
What could improve both working conditions and productivity is to “maximise for” a different behavior, in other words to create incentives that will encourage employees to work fewer and less self-destructive hours.
We know young investment bankers aren’t just motivated by money. In many cases they’re driven by it. As one banker told the Financial Times: “I have seen some banks make discretionary bonuses of middle management based on grad retention. It’s the incentives for desk heads and other members of middle management, rather than for senior executives, that matter.”
In other words, you don’t need to throw money at the Baby MBAs, but the people they report to, look up to, want to be, and if they do well, will be. Richly and gladly.