Wake-up Call Ignored As Culture Of Overwork Takes Its Toll

Overwork 2

My drinking days are long gone, which is probably why I’ve never really gotten into Red Bull. Although judging from those I see quaffing the stuff, it’s a great way to cure hangovers. And, when vodka’s added, rather adept at creating them. 

So the effect of the caffeine-laced energy drink is outside my circle of competence. But even I can see Red Bull got a rough ride at Friday’s well-publicised inquest in east London.

Among the most prominent feedback was that 21-year-old Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt just loved the stuff, and on the day he died had apparently been putting away Red Bulls like Klipdrift at a Pretoria braai.

The tragedy of the young City of London intern who died from overwork received blanket coverage in the UK. Erhardt was one of two selected from 1,500 internship applicants. He was coming to the end of his seven-week stretch. Eager to impress right to the end, immediately before his death he’d put in three all-nighters.

Coroner Mary Hassell said the young German died after suffering an epileptic fit in his shower. With typical British understatement, she concluded: “One of the triggers for epilepsy is exhaustion. It may well be because Moritz had been working so hard, his fatigue was a trigger for the seizure that killed him.”

Merrill Lynch’s lawyer waved the epilepsy straw like a sabre. Erhardt had not disclosed he was on epilepsy medication, he trumpeted. Nor did he tell any of his co-workers. So how were we to know?

The subtext is clear: the intern’s death wasn’t Merrill’s fault. It was due to an undisclosed physical defect. Of course, the firm will conduct a survey into working hours to satisfy outsiders. But it’s proud of a hard-working culture. It isn’t killing interns. They work 100-hour weeks because they want to. It’s the kind of people Merrill attracts. The best. But perhaps they should go a little easier on those Red Bulls.

The biggest tragedy of Erhardt’s passing is that epilepsy delivers the perfect excuse. Nothing need change. Now nobody internally needs to honestly analyse its destructive culture of praising excessive work, indulgently smiling at those declaring themselves workaholics.

It’s not just in the City of London where this attitude permeates. The experience of Cell-C CEO Alan Knott-Craig is instructive.

Five years ago, Knott-Craig was so far gone after his third heart attack he had an out-of-body experience, chillingly described in the opening chapter of his autobiography. He told me shortly afterwards that he was finished with the business world. That his future would be devoted to the genteel art of bird photography.

But when Cell-C came calling last April, the challenge was too enticing. Knott-Craig threw himself into leveling the playing field of the cellphone industry. He lobbied hard and successfully to get mobile termination rates reduced. Recently, he admitted to “never having worked harder”.

Earlier this month, Knott-Craig’s body called time. Again. His team at Cell-C was quick to issue a public statement that he had suffered only a “minor” stroke, declaring their leader would soon be back in harness.

Don’t be so sure. Those close to the mobile phone entrepreneur know there’s no such thing as a “minor” stroke. Knott-Craig was lucky. This time he really knows it. His return is anything but imminent.

Carol Loomis’s wonderful book on Warren Buffett called Tap Dancing to Work relays the Oracle of Omaha’s view on the subject. In one of the more insightful passages, Buffett says he would rather do his first job than run industrial giant General Electric.

Of being a paperboy for the Washington Post at the age of 13, Buffett says: “I can think about what I want to think. I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. It might be wonderful to be the head of GE, and Jeff Immelt is a friend of mine. And he’s a great guy. But think of all the things he has to do, whether he wants to or not.”

Ditto the late Merrill Lynch intern. And Alan Knott-Craig.

Buffett possesses an instinctive appreciation for what Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan calls “bandwidth”, our emotional reserves.

Having enough bandwidth helps you to be a good boss, an attentive spouse, a contributor in meetings. Running a deficit, as the author and economics professor puts it, means “when we schedule things, we just show up”.

Mullainathan argues that bandwidth is built through life balance. Get enough rest and you’re easily able to resist impulses. You also focus better, absorb new ideas, have creative leaps. Without it, you simply go through the motions.

Media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington is more direct. For her, it’s about getting enough sleep. At least eight hours a night. She’s so big on the subject her Huffington Post headquarters in New York has two “snooze rooms” where staffers are encouraged to recharge.

Huffington’s conversion came five years ago after visiting colleges with one of her daughters. To ensure focus, the BlackBerries were stored away during the day. The Greek-born new media tycoon caught up on work when everyone else was sleeping.

On arriving home, she literally collapsed from exhaustion, bumping her head when falling, breaking a cheekbone and requiring five stitches below her eyebrow. As she put it: “When it comes to wake-up calls, few are as effective as the spilling of your own blood.”

Huffington says the scare transformed her into a “sleep evangelist”, preaching that the quality of one’s contribution is directly correlated to how much we rest. In Mullainathan’s terms, the depth of our bandwidth.

From everything we’ve seen it’s a message that’s still not gained credence at Merrill Lynch, even after Moritz Erhardt. Shame.

by Alec Hogg: Editor and publisher of Biznews.com, financial writer and broadcaster, business keynote speaker.

SOURCE: www.leader.co.za

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