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Working Too Many Hours is Sick. Literally.

May 3, 2012

A new study was reported recently in the Wall Street Journal which followed the exploits of 24 freshly minted MBA’s over a ten year period as they entered the investment banking field.

Typically these ambitious folks enter their jobs working 100-hour weeks, convinced they have the ticket to the big leagues.

Within four years, every single one of these over-worked investment bankers developed a host of ailments, including allergies, weight gain, eating disorders, heart palpitations, insomnia, and substance addictions. Further down the road, some developed chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders.

Sheez Louise. I work with plenty of investment bankers on a routine basis, and to me they always appear, fit, trim, healthy, and clear-eyed. Their $2,500 tailored suits aren’t so bad on the eyes either. So who knows, maybe these particular associates of mine have already survived the grind years and are now sitting pretty (literally), making deals and cashing big transaction checks.

As for myself, I never wanted to be an investment banker. Also, I’ve never chosen to be a workaholic.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always put in a good 50 – 60 hours a week. Sure, there are times when you have to pull out all the stops to get to the finish line – but all in all, I’ve viewed my work as a means of enjoying a whole, balanced life. Not as the focal point.

That is not to say I lack ambition. On the contrary, I was determined to do my best and get all the promotions I could muster, with my sights set on moving into the highest levels of management. And I did. But it was accomplished by working smart, not stupid crazy hours at the cost of my health and family.

I don’t care where you are in the management hierarchy; I would say a good healthy 55 hours a week should be plenty. I take my cue from great leaders like Coleman Mockler, the former CEO of Gillette who was profiled in Jim Collins book, Good to Great. Mr. Mockler courageously led Gillette through a hostile takeover attempt, and in spite of the tumultuous period he was home every night for dinner, spent weekends with his family and was at church every Sunday morning. If he can do it, why can’t I?

Perhaps I ended up in industries and companies where the grind wasn’t quite so brutal as in investment banking. If this is the case, it was by grace of God, not my brilliant prescience of choice. Thank God for that.

Listen, I don’t have any doubts that these hungry MBA grads knew exactly what they were getting into. The excruciating work week is what they wanted. And I understand that sometimes you have to pay your dues to get to the pretty perched places.

If there’s a lesson here, we all make choices – where to work, how hard to work, what gets traded off, and when to give up. And I’m here to tell you,

You can be ambitious without sacrificing your soul.

You can get promoted without missing dinner every night of the week.

You can build a healthy and prosperous career without making yourself sick along the way.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. David @ Red Letter Believers permalink
    May 3, 2012 6:29 am

    I think dinner with the family is important. It’s that time when nothing else matters and they do. The way business is these days, everyone is getting pushed more and more and expecting those hours. So carving out a little time for the family, a little time for a walk, and time for God are vital. The number of hours are insignificant, as long as you have some bays of respite.

  2. May 3, 2012 7:20 am

    I once read an interview with Jack Welch, he of GE fame, talking about how to balance family and work. He said there was no such thing as a balance. People made choices, and there were consequences. The thing is, as you point out, to choose.

    • May 4, 2012 5:07 pm

      Yeah, that sounds like Jack Welch. And you are absolutely correct: it is a choice. A choice I did not make.

  3. May 3, 2012 7:51 am

    I have no doubt that lack of sleep is one of the biggest reasons these investment bankers fall apart. At the leadership institute where I work, we have a visiting faculty member from Notre Dame who is doing some fascinating research on the connections between sleep and brain performance. Basically, if you’re averaging less than 7 hours a night over a long stretch, you’re setting yourself up for trouble mentally, emotionally and physically. Some of us are exceptions to this rule; most of us are not. But it’s hard to remember. I get sick, then I catch up on rest, then I work too hard, then I get sick again. Your post is on the mark, Bradley. Well said.

    • May 4, 2012 5:06 pm

      Oh no. I’m in trouble. Except I already knew that. I had sleep apnea for a long time undiagnosed, which took a huge toll on my physical and mental state of being. I’m better now that I’ve gotten it addressed, but I find that the older I get, the worse I sleep. But I am avoiding sleeping pills at all costs. I do try to get at least 7, but by the time the night is over it usually seems closer to 5 or 6 with all the waking up. Sounds like I need a sleep therapist…

      • May 4, 2012 6:34 pm

        Nothing like running in the am to help you sleep in the pm :-)

  4. May 3, 2012 10:09 am

    Great advice. I only wish that I’d read this about 20 years ago

  5. sawyerspeaks permalink
    May 3, 2012 1:03 pm

    Your blog’s getting more comments than mine lately, and I’m getting jealous. Anyway, what’s especially trying is when people at the zillion dollar level expect that people at the hundred dollar level work just as many hours. They forget that while they will accumulate enough money for an end game, when they head off into the Bermuda sunset, the hundred-aires will still be at work. Until they drop.

    • May 4, 2012 5:11 pm

      I have found this little trick to increase comments: you go in and make your own comments. It works! Look, I’ve just about doubled mine just now! Thanks, Jeff.

  6. May 3, 2012 4:00 pm

    I like the photo of the view from the heights of the little groups of ants (people) talking and resting in the grass.

    • May 4, 2012 5:04 pm

      Yeah, that was taken from the top of the Eifel Tower. I kept waiting for a good post to use it on. This wasn’t it, but I used it anyway.

  7. May 3, 2012 8:06 pm

    Great post!! Having a balance is important in all areas of our lifes but especially the physical and spiritual. I know I can lose that balance but thanks to your blog and others that serve as important reminders for us all!

    • May 4, 2012 5:10 pm

      Nick, I was really hoping that my blog alone was entirely responsible for your health and well being, as well as your career success. Please don’t tell me there are others.

  8. May 4, 2012 5:43 pm

    This is exactly why my husband left the managerial environmental position in the pulp & paper industry for the calmer wood product industry. He left the management title, higher pay, and horrific hours to someone else too. Not many folks are looking to step down that workforce ladder– until their own family appears as small as those little folks in your image up there and/or they are looking at them from a hospital bed.

    Thanks for this insight.

  9. May 5, 2012 11:25 am

    My sweet little neice is in her first year with a large accounting firm in town. She joined them right before tax season. She has been working crazy hours and apparently, is subject to the senior accountants power plays. Bless her heart, she’s willing to put in her dues. I just think it’s crazy. What would happen if we were for each other? Right from the beginning? It’s a crazy upside down world in some ways, isn’t it?

  10. May 11, 2012 12:30 pm

    A lot of it just has to do with us simply making the decision to draw a line in the sand and declare that we’re not going to live that lifestyle. Coping with busyness at work while maintaining a healthy life outside of the office is just something we’re going to have to learn. Work isn’t going to slow down.

  11. June 26, 2013 3:46 pm

    I spotted this after googling “does working too many hours make you sick?” I had to search this because I work at a company where people naturally put in 60+ hours per week (I just overheard a manager brag about not having left until midnight last night – with pride in his voice, of course). Oddly though, I’ve noticed that I have two coworkers who now have to work from home because of health issues, another manager who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, constant colds and flu symptoms that generate all year round at the office. Makes me wonder how necessary that many hours are?

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