advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Everyone at my office works too much

I work in investment banking. It’s a high pressure industry, and my firm has a reputation for long hours and a “burn the candle at both ends”-mentality. I knew this when I took the job, but now I admit it’s what I hate most about what I do. It wouldn’t be so bad if I thought I was more productive as a result, but I don’t. The way I see it, my colleagues and I sit around all day staring at our screens trying to impress each other with how much we’re working, all the while waiting for the boss to leave so we can get the h*** out of there. (Of course then we send a bunch of emails from home so it looks like we’re still working!) We were 100% remote for a while during the pandemic, and honestly, I felt like I got more done – or at least did just as much in fewer hours. I’d like to buck the system and keep my own more reasonable schedule, but I’m still pretty ambitious, and don’t want to ruin my chances for promotion. Is there some way to change my company’s culture? Or will I need to learn to live with this? – Name withheld

One of the more insightful passages I’ve come across describing what you seem to be experiencing is in Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth (2009):

“…when they [coworkers] are not rearranging the family photos or playing computer games, they often use their extra hours at the office to complain about how many hours they work, or indulge in fantasies about what they will do when they at last escape work. Then they turn around and compete with each other to spend still more fruitless hours at the office and deride those who decline to join them in this bonfire of utility as ‘slackers’” (p. 259).

A bonfire of utility. That sums it up perfectly.

Having said that, no. There is very little that you, as an individual, can do to alter your workplace’s current culture. That would require a sea change in attitude on the part of management and your organization’s chief executive.

What you find yourself the victim of is what I like to call “cog theory”-thinking. Managers can come to view their employees as inputs, or mere “cogs” in the organizational “machine.” According to this logic, the harder you work them—or the more you “crank” your cogs—the more the organization accomplishes. Encouraging (or expecting) long hours is therefore a good thing.

What this fails to take into account, however, is a principle economists refer to as the “law of diminishing marginal utility.”

When you sit down to eat a pizza, for instance, that first slice you dig into is typically the most satisfying. Your initial craving for pepperoni or whatever is met, and your immediate hunger satiated. With each additional slab you devour, however, this “utility” drops off – until at some point, you may not be able to stomach another piece even if someone paid you to eat it (although personally, I’ve never reached this point).[1]

The same holds true for work.

Most people derive a sense of satisfaction from the work they do under the right conditions. This seems to hold true regardless of what you do, or who you work for.[2] But work too much, even at an ideal job, and you burn out. You become less engaged, less efficient, and—importantly—less productive. And probably not just for the extra hour or two (or five) you put in, but throughout your entire day. You said so yourself; you felt you got more done in less time when you worked from home.

So what can you do?

Well, if you were trying to get your taste for pizza back, I’d say eat less of it. You can do something similar with your job.

You’re familiar with working from home because of the pandemic, right? Well, flip that, and “home from work,” if you follow me.

Run all your virtual errands while at the office, for instance. Do your online banking, shopping, and/or bill paying – or plan your next vacation. Worried your employer is monitoring your browser history?[3] Escape the office and do some actual errands instead. Take the car in for service, hit the gym, or just take a long lunch.

The point is to cut back on the time you spend working even though you’re still physically “at work” for those ten- or 12-hour days. Sure – it’s not the same as being out of the building and completely off the clock. But it should help.

And if you’re inclined to feel at all guilty about this, just keep in mind the law of diminishing marginal utility.

By “working less,” you’ll actually be increasing your absolute productivity – because when you do sit down to focus, you’ll be better able to engage in your job.

In that, you’re doing both yourself and your employer a favor…all the while keeping up appearances.



[1] Baumol, William J. and Alan S. Blinder. Economics: Principles and Policy (13th Edition). 2016 (Cengage Learning), p. 85.

[2] Sirota, David, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. The Enthusiastic Employee. 2005 (Wharton School Publishing).

[3] Note that it is well within your employer’s legal right to monitor your internet usage if you’re using company property, according to the HR professional I consulted. Current law does not allow your employer to monitor the use of a personal cell phone, however.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Tim Eiler

    At my last job, I started out with a whole lot that needed to be accomplished in a very short time, so that my team would be able to become effective. Three things happened as a consequence:

    1. I found I never stopped working 59, 60, even 70 hour weeks at that job. The ‘inertia” kept going – there was always more that ‘needed to get done urgently!”

    2. I sent the wrong message to my team. Try hard as I might, messages to do as I said (“You don’t need to work as many hours as I. In fact, it does the opposite of impressing me.”; “When I see a person who works long hours on the regular, I see a disorganized, inefficient person”) weren’t getting through.

    3. I burned out.

    Thankfully, I recovered. I learned to prioritize and focus again.

    It’s important that your writer not only do the same, but also to reframe the situation to something like, “I have ambition and don’t want to seem as a slacker, so I’m going to focus on delivering consistent, predictable, quality outcomes and outputs from my work, rather than focusing on butt-in-seat hours. I’m going to tell my manager what I’m doing , and ask for her/his advice re how to accomplish this at the company. Then I’m going to do it, and let the results speak for me.”


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