When Ruwan Subasinghe was an apprentice lawyer in one of London’s large firms, he was so overworked that on one occasion he did not leave the office for three days. As he and his colleagues slept under their desks, they were told to place their phones on their chests so that the vibrations would wake them up when someone called.
Do you reach for your tiny violin? Like many people, my instinct was to roll my eyes a little over the complaints that have emerged in recent years from tired lawyers and miserable junior bankers. I spend a lot of my professional life listening to overwork HGV drivers, Deliveroo Couriers, healthcare staff, factory workers and office cleaners, which left me somewhat unsympathetic to high-paying people who could do something else if they wanted to.
But sympathy is not really the point. Burnt out lawyers, bankers and consultants highlight problems that exist across the payroll with serious consequences. And addressing the concerns of people at the top can help inform the debate on how to improve jobs at the bottom as well.
For much of the past two centuries, long working hours have been more common for the poor than the rich. Not anymore. In the UK, for example, the tenth of men with the highest hourly pay now work on average seven hours a week more than the tenth of men with the lowest hourly pay, According to the Resolution Foundation think tank. For women, the gap is 10 hours.
There are good reasons for long hours in sectors such as law, where associates at top firms are generally expected to bill between 1,900 and 2,200 hours a year, according to a FT Groot Lees on the subject. Clients expect round-the-clock service, issues can suddenly explode, and detailed work does not always lend itself to stick-passing between colleagues in a shift system. There is also simple arithmetic: if you pay an employee an annual salary but ask their customers in blocks of six minutes, it makes sense to withdraw as many hours as possible from the employee. Yes, many fall out along the way, but a law firm is a pyramid with fewer spots at the top anyway.
Many people opt for this system in exchange for high salaries and a chance at partnership. The problem is, it makes them sick. In a recording last year, of 1,700 lawyers in the UK and Ireland by LawCare, a charity for mental health, 69 per cent said they had experienced mental illness in the previous year. More than a third slept six hours or less a night.
It’s not just mental health that suffers when you work overtime. Last year, a study by the World Health Organization concluded that work 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to 35-40 hours per week to work. Your body breaks when you work too much, whether you are paid £ 10 or £ 200 an hour.
Subasinghe, who has left his law firm and is now legal director at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, says it does not make sense to disregard overworked lawyers simply because they are paid better than truck drivers. “For me, high-paying professions should not be exempted from these kinds of discussions,” he tells me. “We must expect from any workplace, regardless of payment, to comply with national laws and prevailing national standards [and] for me, the biggest concern is occupational safety and health. ”
Burnout in the legal profession coupled with growing demand is now causing staff problems, even though salaries have risen further. It is a reminder to other sectors experiencing labor shortages that higher wages cannot fix everything. The shortage of truck drivers, for example, has spurred many close that employers simply have to pay them more. Poor pay was part of the problem, but managers not only want more money, they want to less exhaustion and more opportunity for a family life.
It will be difficult and expensive to reform the entrenched longevity culture in sectors such as law, but there will also be gains, and not just for people’s health. Firms will have access to more talented people (especially women) who are unable or unwilling to work 70-hour weeks. Customers can also benefit because it is hard to believe the quality of white-collar work does not suffer when people are so tired.
It’s time to stop the eye roll when overworked lawyers and bankers object to their working conditions and call on their industries to change. They may not need sympathy, but they deserve support.