Is anyone really working 80 hours a week?

Men are often more discreet about cutting back on work, a BU professor finds.

A Boston University professor explains how different genders approach work-life balance.
A Boston University professor explains how different genders approach work-life balance.
Flickr/Creative Commons

‘Can anyone realistically work 80 hours a week?’

This was just one question Erin Reid, an organizational behavior professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, had when she studied a global strategy consulting firm, wondering whether men and women face the same type of pressure when it comes to finding work-life balance.

The high-powered, workaholic culture at the firm prized employees who routinely put in between 60 and 80 hours a week, neglecting their personal life to travel constantly and be constantly available to clients.

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“For a long time, corporations and businesses would really prize people willing to work all the time,” Reid told Boston.com. “With the ease of travel now and mobile technology, it’s easy for an organization to require that more now.”

After conducting over 115 interviews, Reid found that many employees – both men and women – simply couldn’t keep up. “Many were experiencing very high work-life conflict,” Reid said. “Slightly more than half had problems with this and found ways to cope.”

But how men and women at the firm coped was often very different, Reid found.

While women were generally up front with their bosses about needing to scale back, a “bucketful” of men Reid interviewed said they had found ways to subtly modify their workloads while still appearing to work superhuman hours.

Men found various ways to “pass.” Some cultivated local clients so they could travel less, while others formed alliances with co-workers who would share the workload.

“For a lot of guys it was a non-conscious thing,” Reid said. “They looked around and couldn’t do the job that way and found a way around it. People assumed they were working all the time and that assumption wasn’t corrected.”

Alexandra Michel, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in New York City before moving into academia. She studied two Wall Street banks’ workplace culture and their physical and mental effects on bankers for 14 years, finding – like Reid – that men and women used very different methods to cope with burnout.

“Women who wanted to stay with the bank came up with more innovative solutions, while men would try to be more clandestine in working less,” Michel said. “One gentlemen put his jacket over his chair so it seemed like he was still working, even though he was already home.”

Reid said it was harder for women to “pass” in the workplace because of persisting gender stereotypes. If women weren’t at work, bosses widely assumed they were home with kids or taking time off, while men who didn’t show up were presumed to be traveling or with clients.

Men who openly asked for less work were marginalized or penalized like their female counterparts. They were passed by for promotions or received poor performance reviews, Reid said. “Or sometimes they would come to ‘mutual agreements’ with their boss that that person should leave the organization,” she added.

Reid wants two things to come from her study:

• “We need to recognize it’s not only women who have trouble with work-life balance, or work-family balance. Men have problems with this too. This is a social problem.”

• “Because men and women equally have problems but we treat them differently, they have different methods of coping.”

Reid said the onus is on the organization to develop more humane ways of working, and more equitable ways of treating people. Unsurprisingly, working overtime has been linked to reduced physical and mental well-being.

Michel found this in her studies — men and women working impossible hours complained of hair loss, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia (chronic muscle pain), she said.

“Women are not doing anything bad,” Reid said. “Men aren’t either. They’re just people in jobs with silly expectations.”