Long hours and media overload: lessons for today’s stressed executives

The FT revisits the curse of the time-poor executive.
Paul Lewis
Apr 24, 2018

It’s easy to be cynical about such concerns. Boredom is probably a bigger concern for office workers than long-hours and high pressure. Moreover, plenty of research demonstrates the diminishing and eventually negative returns to long hours.

Unfortunately, the message about the counter-productive consequences of over working doesn’t always get through—and the result can be toxic. Brooke Masters, the FT’s new comments and analysis editor, refers to an alarming email sent by a banker to junior analysts. He had been walking around the New York office at midnight and found 11 staff members still working at their desks. ‘Given that new [projects needing] staffing continue to flow in and you are all very near capacity,’ the banker wrote, ‘the only way I can think of to differentiate among you is to see who is in the office in the wee hours of the morning.’ The implied message: work all night or get fired.

Rather than disown the manager’s comments, the bank declined to comment – and this following a 2015 suicide of an employee, after which the bank had promised to introduce more flexible working.

Arguably there’s a degree of choice involved in working excessive hours on Wall Street or in other competitive environments. Such a choice was exercised by cricketer Zafar Ansari who announced that he was giving up the sport after achieving his childhood ambition of playing for England. As Michael Skapinker, FT columnist and executive editor of the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance points out, the 25-year old Ansari, who boasts a double first in psychology and sociology from University of Cambridge, didn’t retire because he deemed cricket to be insufficiently stimulating. Rather, ‘he realised he was just not competitive enough.’ He couldn’t match his team-mates’ hyper-competitive spirit.

Being hyper-competitive isn’t always the right thing to be, even for the most ambitious high fliers whether in banking, sport or other field. The demands of a job can change as one’s career progresses. When put in charge of others, you can no longer be their mates. You must ‘take tough decisions that may hurt individuals but are necessary for the organisation.’ You may need that ‘splinter of ice in the heart.’ Crucially, you must act within an ‘atmosphere of fairness, of decent respect for the effect their decisions have on people’s lives,’ a point clearly lost on the aforementioned New York bank. Ultimately, the ‘very best understand when they are not right for the job.’ It isn’t necessarily a sign of lack of ambition. However, it takes real self-awareness to come to that conclusion.

Similar lessons might apply when we do get to relax. This is especially true when it comes to our obsessive consumption of media, as described by the FT’s technology writer Jonathan Margolis. He refers to the ‘panic-inducing’ amount of content and streaming services we feel obliged to consume in our downtime. Some cope by expertly multi-tasking; others decide to delete Facebook and Twitter to cut down on the number of stories they need to read. Bizarrely, ‘some people listen to podcasts speeded up…up to five times the normal rate, rendering artfully produced programmes to Donald Duck on helium.’

As with overwork, the impact of trying to consume too much knowledge too quickly is usually counter-productive. As one perplexed consumer noted: ‘One way or another, I get a lot of information each day. It’s just weird that I’m not smarter.’

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring