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Dangers of perpetuating a “professional services sweatshop” culture.

Does ‘work hard, play hard’ still hold true in today’s workplace environment?


Human Resources

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Stephen Helberg

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The old adage, ‘work hard, play hard’ is a phrase we’ve heard used to describe the culture in professional services but does it still hold true in today’s workplace environment?

Whilst hard working employees will often have a sense of purpose for their work, there’s ample evidence to suggest that productivity at work and employee loyalty is intrinsically linked to sound mental health, well-being and overall quality of life.

When we read about the recent tragic death of an Ernst & Young employee in their Sydney, Australia office, it immediately raises questions about workplace culture in the context of professional services firms and whether this person may have been burnt out. Even though the average working week is supposed to be 37½ hours, we often hear of staff working more than 80 hrs a week particularly during audit ‘busy season’ for the accounting profession.  When junior employees are expected to put 80-90% of their available hours as chargeable to a client code, any wonder they don’t have much time to attend to other non-chargeable requirements such as administration, training and development let alone time for family or a social life.

The reality remains that a ‘sweat-shop’ environment adversely affects productivity, employee retention and whether or not staff want to work for a business. Employers have a duty to take reasonable care to protect an employee against foreseeable injury arising out of their employment which one might argue extends to mental health and wellbeing. Chargeable hours over staff wellbeing is hardly a recipe for organisational success when you consider ‘people’ are the product and workplace culture is often the key differentiator in an often crowded market.

Professional services employees are generally high achievers, well trained in their craft and practice. That means firms need to nurture a healthy and inviting culture where staff are encouraged to grow and learn remembering that millennials are not driven necessarily only by salary and benefits. From accountants to architects, from engineers to lawyers, from finance workers to physicians, the professional services sector needs to take stock following the recent events embroiling EY so that the workplace environment is conducive to a healthy corporate culture where work life balance is actively supported and encouraged.

Equally, boards and executives of major corporates need to reconsider demands for better service which can perpetuate this professional services ‘sweatshop’ culture.

About the Author

Stephen Helberg is an Partner at Alac Partners and Co-Founder of Stephen's experience includes extensive board level, executive management and governance experience, nationally and globally across diverse industries, and in top ASX20 organisations.

Human Resources

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Human Resources

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