Do Not Let Your Employer Pressure You to Work Extra Hours
Worker solidarity is camaraderie between co-workers. It is the idea that workers must work together, look out for each other, and care for one another. This concept is, arguably, a core humanistic quality, and there is a long history of valuing worker solidarity in the labor movement. The fact that workers will not cross a union picket line is a direct manifestation of worker solidarity; it is a sign that one stands with other workers fighting for better working conditions.
Of course, union membership is at a low in the United States not seen since the beginning of the labor movement. Further, professional white-collar workers have never been unionized, and this population does not typically directly consider worker solidarity in their orientation to the workplace. Instead, this population is more apt to declare loyalty to the company or to one’s manager. Nevertheless, there is still an inherent human drive to show solidarity with colleagues, and this drive is often exploited by managers as a coercive managerial instrument.
In my first professional job, I was a diligent worker, but I was committed to my life outside of the office. I came in on time every day, but I also left on time every day. Apparently this upset some of the more over-achieving coworkers or managers because in my first review I received the feedback that some people thought I was not a “team player.” I took issue with this critique, and in the long-term it was inconsequential. However, the use of this management method bears some consideration, because I think it is very common.
As I’ve mentioned, this management technique is based on exploiting the inherent human quality of wanting to show solidarity with one’s peers and social group members. In my situation, I was providing quality work during my more than standard 8:30-5:30 work day. The truth is that my company intentionally under-staffed so that they could squeeze more work out of over-achieving 20-somethings rather than hiring more employees. The story is as old as capitalism itself, but it is particularly prevalent today anywhere that motivated young people congregate: investment banks, consulting firms, law firms, accounting firms, and start-ups.
Of course, there are many ambitious young people who are completely excited to work such hours, but there are others who either cannot handle such long hours, or who would just rather spend hours of their valuable lives doing something else. In the worse situations, like a number of young investment banker suicides, the victims are so afraid to say no to pressures to work harder and harder that they break down emotionally. My own pressures to work longer described above pale in comparison to the hours these bankers were working before they plunged to their deaths, but they were still prevalent. Besides the “team player” critique, there were peers bragplaining (that’s right, bragging and complaining at the same time) about their long hours, and assessment schemes based on billable hours.
All of these forces create a type of group think to work longer. Despite firms’ paying lip service to “work life balance,” these cultures are intentionally cultivated because it profits the firm to an incredible degree. When considering the hourly fees that are collected for such employees ($200-$500 per hour in the most elite firms), and incentive schemes that may not directly provide significant additional compensation for overtime hours (most professional employees are overtime exempt), the profit motive is clear. However, we must ask ourselves, “At what cost?” For every young investment banker who is worked to the point of suicide, there are thousands of professionals who face anomie, depression, relationship problems, and who may turn to medication or illicit drugs to cope with their work lives. The personal cost is not worth pleasing one’s boss or peers.
This culture of long work hours is based on a culture of fear: fear that one will not be promoted, fear that one will be fired for being “unproductive,” fear that one’s boss will become angry (a sort of submissive orientation that many learn as children), or fear that one will not measure up to one’s peers. The young white collar workforce must stand up and say no this this kind of abuse. I can tell you from my own experience that the skills needed for such jobs are extremely valuable. If the company is understaffed as they claim to be, would they actually choose to lose an employee’s 100% effort because they are not providing 120% effort to the detriment of their own health? I think not. I can also inform from my own experience that my own workplace success (years later) is the result of my diligent effort, creative problem solving, and learning orientation. I rarely work more than 40 hours a week in an industry where 60+ is common, and my experience is not an outlier.
To all of the young white collar professionals, I say that you can have work life balance, and it begins with the word “No.” It begins with closing the laptop at 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, or whenever, getting up, walking out the door, and living your life. And there is a vast life to be lived outside of your cubicle. I hope that you will live it!