Can Flexible Schedules Create Workaholics?

Giving workers freedom with hours inspires productivity, but can lead to burnout

By Dana Wilkie Aug 2, 2014
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Adopting a hands-off policy about when and where employees work may be the best way to ensure they’re productive.

That’s the conclusion from new research by University of Pennsylvania professor Alexandra Michel, whose 12-year study of investment bankers found that highly educated employees are more inspired, and work longer hours, when they have autonomy over their schedules.

When they set their own work pace, these same employees tend to take fewer vacations and to work on weekends. 

“When something is driven by individual decision, you would expect to see variable schedules, but all worked 80, 90, 100 hours a week,” said Michel, a former Goldman Sachs associate whose study was published in the summer 2014 issue of The Sociological Quarterly

The potential downside to such a work pace, Michel found, is that some employees suffer what she described as “debilitating physical and psychological breakdowns.” 

Slow Deterioration 

Because work habits on Wall Street often reflect other industries that employ what Michel called “knowledge workers”—those whose jobs involve handling or using information—she tracked young executives at two large investment banks. As often happens with knowledge workers in other industries, the bankers had no obvious supervision or controls over the hours they worked. They decided where and how much to work, and came and went as they pleased. 

Michel found that most put in grueling hours—as many as 100 hours a week—which took a toll over the years. During the first four years, she said, “people lost hair, packed on pounds, got colds, but their performance was unaffected.”

After four years, some began developing chronic pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, eating disorders, addictions and heart palpitations.

“The body begins to break down,” Michel said. “But the data show that when the body starts to break down, technical performance doesn’t suffer. You can still do what you’re expected to do with the accuracy and technical skill needed. But creativity, judgment and ethical sensitivity all suffered.”

Ethical sensitivity, she explained, refers to the way the employees treat others. Workers can become curt, impatient, rude, volatile and otherwise unpleasant.

However, most bankers can’t continue the punishing pace for very long after that, she found. The average tenure of an investment banker is seven years; the average age at which they leave the industry is 35. 

One person who commented for a follow-up study that Michel conducted—which looked at how bankers bring their workaholic traits to other industries—said: “I had body pain that kept moving around, my hips, neck, wrists, knees, everything was painful. I could not think right. It took me hours to get the work done that I could previously do in a few minutes. And I now I know that I was depressed.” 

Culture Encourages Overwork 

Michel discovered that even without rules or supervisors dictating when and where the bankers got their jobs done, there were subtle cultural dynamics in the workplace that compelled them to keep the hours they did. 

For instance, some Wall Street banks got rid of private offices and created open floor plans that allowed employees to more easily see when others left the office. “Even very senior bankers didn’t want to leave before midnight because they feared they were setting bad examples,” she said. 

Banks, like other workplaces, began bringing in meals for those who worked past dinnertime, subsidized on-site gym memberships and offered free nighttime car service home—which “had the consequence of making them work more, because now it was so convenient to do so,” she said. 

Michel’s follow-up study showed that bankers brought their “results-oriented” culture to their new jobs—jobs that allowed employees to work at their own pace as long as they delivered. The practice, she said, led those at the new organizations to overwork. 

Another person interviewed for Michel’s follow-up study had this to say about working at a bank: “I started to work hard … partly because others shamed me into it. When someone left before midnight, you’d hear comments like: ‘Half a day today?’ The more you worked, the more of a hero you were.”

“We should care about this because bankers burn out after only seven years, then they go into important positions in our economy and bring their high-intensity work values with them,” Michel said. “My fear is that there will be a lot of indiscriminate overwork and people [in other industries] will suffer much more severe breakdowns than bankers. The latter are fairly resilient and can retire fairly wealthy.” 

Yet employees in other industries may not be quite so resilient or financially stable. “This could have significant implications and costs for our economy.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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