Background Image
Show me

Breaking the long hours culture

Karen Higginbottom

The banking and legal sector are both associated with a long working hours culture and little work-life balance but certain banks and law firms are introducing work-life balance policies in a bid to retain talent. Already some banks are telling their junior staff not to work weekends and to take holidays – but is enough being done to change the working culture of these sectors? Karen Higginbottom investigates

The pressure of the long working hours culture in the financial sector was put firmly in the spotlight a couple of years ago after the death of an intern at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch where the coroner’s inquest found that his death was caused by an epileptic fit but that work overload may have caused the seizure. This year, several financial firms such as Citigroup and Credit Suisse have sent out internal memos discouraging their analysts and associates from working weekends.  

Banks have to set realistic and achievable objectives for their employees, comments Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University School of Management. “The driver for all this is not just about wellbeing. The bottom-line driver for this is retention of the bank’s critical people.” Cooper added that both banks and law firms are introducing flexible working arrangements in a bid to retain key people. A long working hours culture will not lead to increased loyalty or productivity, warns Cooper. “If you create a long hours culture, employees will never trust you and will never commit to the firm and give loyalty in the same way that if you talked to them about realistic objectives and how to achieve those objectives.”

The evidence for the detrimental effects of a long working hours culture is well-known: a work and employment relations survey published by the UK found that longer hours had an impact on employee wellbeing. The survey shows that employees working fewer than 30 hours a week were considerably less likely to feel tense, worried or stressed by work than those working more than 48 hours. Analysis by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health revealed that those individuals whose working days were longer than the traditional eight hours had a 40 to 80% greater chance of heart disease. 

Tackling the long working hours culture can help to improve decision-making, comments Dr Sovan Mitra, lecturer and industry consultant at GCU London. “Working all hours tends just to make you focus on work (in this case banking) and take decisions based on a very narrow view of one sector. A sustainable decision can be made by someone who has a balanced view of the world. While if you earn top wages you should expect to work late this should be tempered by the self-knowledge that you won’t make the best decisions for your company and the communities within which they operate if you are both exhausted and basing your decisions on a very narrow view of the world.”

A culture change is required for flexible working practices to be effective, argues Sibylle Rupprecht, executive director for Catalyst Europe. “Most people feel obliged to work long hours for no effective reason. It’s important to get away from the culture of presenteeism. Employers need to do the following things: have technology in place to encourage staff to work from home; get buy-in from management and managers need to stand behind pilot projects on flexible working.”

Citi bank offers all employees the right to request flexible working, explains Carolanne Minashi, EMEA head of diversity, employee relations and engagement for the bank. "It's more about agile working. Technology has enabled a massive leap forward in terms of what is possible in this space. 95% of our UK population have remote access and the ability to log onto our remote system. We've severed that requirement that you have to be at work to do work." She believes that agile working makes complete business sense. "Our clients are in multiple time zones and the way that our business is moving is lending itself to a much more flexible way of working."

The legal sector is also known for its horrendously long hours but flexible working arrangements are starting to become more commonplace in the sector as one way of attracting and retaining the best talent. Clyde & Co is a global law firm which has tailored its reward system to ensure work-life balance, explains Charlie Keeling, global HR director for the law firm. “In our sector, the culture is driven by chargeable hours so the more hours you bill a client the more successful you are allegedly are. We’ve got lower chargeable hours than our competitors. Our chargeable hours target is 1450 hours a year and the majority of our competitors have a target of 1750 hours a week.” Clyde & Co adjusts its annual target for chargeable hours for its part-time employees, explains Keeling. “If they work three days a week then they need to reach three-fifths of the 1450 hours.”

Employees become eligible for bonus payments once the chargeable hours are reached and the level increase the more hours they do, says Keeling. “Our bonuses kick in at a lower level so it’s likely the percentage bonus will be lower than other firms.”

More than a third of Clyde & Co’s employees are on some form of flexible working arrangement from partner to business support, explains Keeling. “The type of flexible work depends on the department.  We’ve got four-day week arrangements; three-day week arrangements plus one from home and employees on hours per annum contract.”

The flexible working arrangements are in place not only to recruit talent but to retain employees, says Keeling. “From a retention perspective, it’s important to respond flexibly to flexible working arrangements. A lot of flexible workers are maternity returners whose talent we still want to retain but we have men as well as women on flexible arrangements.”

The banking and legal sector are making increased efforts to improve work-life balance for their staff. If they fail to do so; these sectors will miss out on talented staff. 


Add a comment