Back to balance?

November 14, 2013

As the economy revives, Work/Life balance might just revive with it

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The case this summer of Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt put the issue of employee work/life balance back on the centre stage. His death, at the age of 21, came days before the end of a seven-week stint at the bank, and it’s been reported that he had worked through the night as many as eight times in just a fortnight.

This sad event has not just put a spotlight on the investment banks, but also professional services firms that might operate under the same pressurised conditions. It is not so long ago (2009), for instance, that a Freshfields corporate associate collapsed at home after allegedly billing more than 300 hours in the previous month.

Coincidence or otherwise, these untimely deaths make one wonder whether work/life balance will ever really feature in these biggest of firms. And the recession may not have helped.

Associate pressures

Law firm associates, for instance, were some of the biggest casualties of redundancy programmes in the recession. But as clients tightened their budgetary belts, law firms were unwilling to pass the workload onto partners. This means that a smaller number of associates were expected to deliver more work with fewer resources: hardly the ideal recipe for work/life balance.

Even where work levels dropped significantly, associates were hardly likely to lap up the opportunity for a better work/life balance. The need to stick close to the boss and look busy is the obvious consequence of job insecurity.

Several studies conducted over 2011 support this idea. O2, for instance, surveyed 2,000 office employees and found a growing trend for presenteeism due to the state of the economy. So too did a Balancing Act Report of the same year, which suggested that a third of the UK’s workforce spent more time at work and less time at home following the start of the recession.

Admittedly, these weren’t surveys of law firms. But if employees in other sectors were reporting such a change, then you can reasonably suppose that law firms – with their long-held reputation for grueling hours and hard work – would not be faring better.

Job market recovery

The real test will now come as the economy shows signs of recovery. On one side firms might have learned to make do with less and continue to load the pressure onto existing associates – at least until revenue lines are once again strong enough to merit a recruitment drive.

On the other, however, many of those beleaguered associates who have slogged it out at their firms through recession might now be the first to start job-seeking. Legal recruiters are reporting busier times with increased confidence that there will be many more job opportunities in the months ahead.

With firms suddenly finding themselves at risk of losing their most loyal and hardworking staff, perhaps even the biggest of City firms will quickly start prioritising the well-being and work/life balance of their employees. Or at least they will make a show of putting it back onto the agenda. CP

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