THE BLOG
09/03/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Death of an Intern

My first blog was all about how great I felt when I started reading about the Third Metric and listening to Arianna Huffington championing the revolution in how we view work-life balance. I imagine some people viewed my post rather indulgently as being a bit hippie-dippie. In general, it was well-received and I think that's because it wasn't particularly contentious. It's hard to argue with someone propounding the theory of a well-balanced life and advocating that everyone should strive towards this.

This blog, "inspired" by the sad death of Moritz Erhardt, a summer intern in London with Merrill Lynch, may be more contentious. I would like to make it clear from the outset that the cause of Erhardt's death is currently unknown. What is known, however, and what has captured the media's attention, is that this 21-year-old man worked extremely long hours over the last few weeks. There have been a great many articles written about it and it would appear that he worked these hours in order to prove himself to the powers that be at Merrill Lynch in the hope that he would be taken on as a full-time employee.

What has amazed me when I read through the coverage of the story is that nobody seems at all surprised by this, and nobody seems to think it's odd that an intern's ability and suitability for such a financially-rewarding job appears to boil down to nothing more than his or her ability to work insane hours.

Why is it that working long hours is deemed as such a positive thing? Why is it not seen as inefficiency? Is this an ingrained Protestant work ethic that seems to mean the harder we work, the more moral we are? Or does it serve as a disguise? To me, it's not about working hard, it's about working long hours. That's actually not the same thing.

I was lucky to have an inspirational boss at an early stage in my career. One afternoon, she asked me to do something and have it ready by 9.30 a.m. the next day. She then went out for a meeting and came back to the office at 7.30 p.m. to collect her bags. When she found me still at my desk, she was surprised and asked me what I was doing. I explained that she'd asked me to present her with this work at 9.30 a.m. the next day and it was just taking time. Puzzled, she checked my methodology and showed me that I was doing the work in a very laborious, inefficient way. She quickly showed me how to do it correctly and the whole thing was finished in 20 minutes. I was very grateful and she said "Darl," (she was Australian), "I want you to work smart, not hard." I don't think to this day I've ever had another boss like her. Every other person I have worked for would have nodded approvingly at my still being at my desk at 7.30 p.m. She was big enough and intelligent enough to see that it was due to the fact that I was being inefficient. If anything, I imagine she thought I was a bit of a prat and questioned my innate intelligence at this point.

But don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with hard work. Work is healthy and great and sometimes you just have to knuckle down and get something big done in a short space of time. But hard work as a routine with no purpose other than to show others how hard you are working/can work is ridiculous.

If we had a more healthy attitude about work-life balance and what constituted a successful life and how to achieve it, would our culture of long hours exist? Or would it be seen as barbaric as child labour is today? We look back in horror at children up chimneys and miners underground, but we don't wince at city workers having their dry cleaning picked up and delivered from their office chairs to make sure they don't waste a minute of their time getting their 'uniforms' cleaned because the dry cleaners aren't so stupid as to be open at 9 or 10 p.m., when they eventually get off work. If there truly is so much work to be done, then more staff members are needed. If the work has to be done routinely in too short a space of time for regular office hours, then a company can introduce shift patterns. Plenty of businesses/industries do this. So, why don't all companies that have this much work on do it?

I don't believe it's about the bottom line. I believe it's about bosses being unable to assess employees, other than in the crudest possible terms. If someone is prepared to stay until 4 a.m., and someone else says "I'm off" at midnight, then Bingo, they think, my guy is the one who won't stand up for him/herself, doesn't think there's more to life than his/her desk and I, in turn, can turn to my boss and say, 'Hey, I've got my guys working the longest, therefore, I'm the best.' Ironically, it's easier or maybe simpler to work longer hours. No one asks any difficult questions and it's easily quantifiable and measurable -- a bit like basing success purely on money and power. Perhaps it was by such methods that a global, financial crisis was born. To me, people didn't appear to be thinking too much, just doing.

'Health and safety' is a term frequently mocked, but without legislation, many firms, big and small, force unreasonable conditions on workers. Even the legislation that is there does not seem to be enforced effectively, and certainly not at all in a huge number of industries. I personally know little of the European Working Time Directive other than that I'm routinely asked to 'opt out' of it when I start a new job. The subtext is very much that I'm unlikely to get the job if I don't.

I think that if a culture of lauding and admiring lives other than those of the rich and powerful was dominant, then maybe Moritz Erhardt and his colleagues would have had a bit more sleep, played a few games of tennis, sat down for a meal, read an interesting book and taken a deep breath. Are we really to suppose that if people did that as well as work, that the world as we know it would fall apart? That no one would succeed? I think it's Emperor's New Clothes time, and, sooner rather than later, everyone is going to wake up and see that this attitude isn't a good use of time. It's just too high a price to pay.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.

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