What does working 120 hours a week get you? Hopefully, a pretty good paycheck and bonus. According to a new study, though, there are other, less welcomed side effects that accompany a demanding, high-pressure job on Wall Street, including alcoholism, insomnia, weird facial tics and depression.
A new study from University of Southern California business professor Alexandra Michel indicates there’s some truth behind what most people accept as common sense: there’s an emotional and physical price to be paid for working too much, living at the office and being obsessed with making money.
Michel focused on the cultures at two banks’ “boot camps” or “grind mills” — the investment-banking departments, where young workers endure especially long hours and an especially high-pressure environment. Here’s how Michel describes the scene at work:
The bank erased distinctions between work and leisure by providing administrative support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, encouraging leisure at work, and providing free amenities, including child care, valets, car service and meals. Some of the banks’ embodied controls focused on managing employees’ energy and included providing free caffeine and meals during “energy slumps,” hiring young people, focusing on energy as the main hiring criterion, and firing low performers because of their energy drain.
For the first few years an employee is on the job, Michel writes, the “banks benefited from bankers’ hard work,” aided by the system of “socialization” and “organizational control.” By around Year 4 on the job, though, Michel notes that, despite what seemed to be the best efforts of the bankers, their bodies “turned antagonistic.” By Year 6, physical and emotional breakdowns tended to intensify, and worker performance clearly declined.
What does it mean for one’s body to “turn antagonistic”? Just what it sounds like. When the body doesn’t like how it’s being treated, it shows through. In the case of the investment bankers being studied, the manifestations come in the form of back pain, weight gain, insomnia and depression, as well as occasional “embarrassing tics, such as nail biting, nose picking or hair twirling,” according to Michel.
The Los Angeles Times quotes a part of the study noting that, to relieve stress, some of the young bankers “shopped, partied and consumed pornography.” That’s the stuff that many bankers would put among the upsides of the job, no?
More clearly on the down side are testimonials from workers who say things like, “I am willing to kill myself at work because this is an opportunity that comes along only once in life,” and “It feels like my body is choking off all life force.”
Tracing the progression up the corporate ladder, Michel quotes bankers in various stages of the game. In the “honeymoon” phase of Years 1 to 3, for instance, an employee said:
“I totally believe in mind over matter. There are no such things as physical needs. Tell me one physical need, and I can tell you a culture in which they have controlled it.”
By Year 4, reality — and depression — starts to set in:
“I am the most disciplined person I know. But sometimes it’s like my body is running the show and doing things for which I loathe myself, but I just cannot stop it. I am desperate.”
Then, in Year 6, one’s limitations have been revealed, along with the revelation that you can’t always push beyond them:
“Even as an athlete I was pushing through pain. That’s just what you learn to do if you want to be serious about something. Now if something feels seriously off, I lay off immediately, both at the gym and at work.”
The findings back up previous studies emphasizing the potential harm of overworking, including one indicating that there’s a 67% higher risk of heart disease among employees who work 11 or more hours per day.
Based on Michel’s study, overworking may not only be bad for the body, mind and soul of the employee, but also bad for the employer.