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Underwhelmed with overtime

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 11:09 a.m. CDT

Let me ask you a question: How many hours will you work today?

This isn’t a trick question, not unless you are an investment banker or a hedge fund manager, or a hapless dweeb hoping to become one or the other. It’s also no trick if you charge by the hour, like lawyers or management consultants, or prostitutes.

You can see the point I am making here. Whether you work for McKinsey or for the Bunny Ranch, the more time you spend on the job, the more expense for your client, the more profit for your firm and the more cash that will come dribbling down the org chart for hardworking, little y-o-u.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway. The only problem is that human beings are not machines. You can’t turn us on and leave us running for days, weeks and months.

Without regular breaks, we tend to break down. Without regular service, we tend to get irregular and stupid, and pretty darn grumpy as well.

It has taken a while, but this basic truth has finally hit home on Wall Street. According to a James Surowiecki article in the Jan. 27 issue of The New Yorker, an “unspoken pact” between junior bankers and Wall Street firms has changed.

The original terms of the pact were devilishly simple — “for reasonably high-paying jobs and a shot at obscene wealth, young analysts agreed to work fifteen hours a day, and forgo anything resembling a normal life.”

The new terms have not modified the obscene wealth part; that’s still there for the taking, but the opportunity to spend every waking — and half your sleeping — hours at your desk is being curtailed. Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse have told their junior investment analysts not to work on Saturdays. Bank of America Merrill Lynch insists that analysts take four weekend days off a month.

Shocking, ain’t it? By allowing its junior employees to crunch numbers and burn brain cells only six days a week, these companies are turning their businesses into virtual vacation resorts. Fortunately, the employees are still allowed to work 15 hours on those measly rations of days, so we can still expect a high level of exhaustion, depression and economy-crushing blunders that have come to represent Wall Street over the years.

Economy-crunching blunders?

Yes, indeed! As Surowiecki points out, “The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality.”

So, why do our elite industries — and yes, I’m talking about you, Bunny Ranch — continue to overvalue overtime? One reason is tradition. The managers had to suffer, so the newbies should suffer as well. Another reason is profit.

When charging by the hour, “the system can reward you for working longer, not smarter.” In other words, a $600-an-hour lawyer gets to charge the same rate, whether the work she produces is Williams Jennings Bryan quality or Bruce Jenner quality. A final reason is efficiency.

As Surowiecki writes, “it’s still cheaper to pay one person to work a hundred hours a week than two people to work fifty hours apiece.”

Now, this could strike you as depressing, but I see a real opportunity here. It may be cheaper to pay one person to work a hundred hours a week, but what if these firms paid 100 people to work one hour a week! Not only would so many more of us get to grab at the brass ring of “obscene wealth,” but in one swell foop, the entire unemployment problem would be solved.

Knowing your personal work habits, I’m sure it strikes you as pretty crazy that anyone would voluntarily work one minute more than the bare minimum.

After all, your personal career success has rested on your ability to rest.

Your triumph is that you keep getting a paycheck while you keep coming in late, leaving early and doing almost nothing in between.

In a more rational society, your ability to work so few hours would be celebrated, but until that glorious day comes, perhaps you should consider spending more time at your desk and less time at the free, all-you-can-eat Buffalo wings barbecue at the Kit Kat Club.

How much more time?

Well, when the boss insists that you stop working so hard and start taking more time off, you’ll know that you have accomplished your goal — you’ve become just as crazy and twisted as a Wall Street banker.

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