Can consulting businesses achieve work-life balance for their employees? Are consulting hours all over the place? We tried to find out.
Consultancy is a high-challenge, high-reward career that attracts a driven and committed workforce. A notoriously intense working environment, consultancy places high demands on consultants’ time and intellectual energy, which can make it hard to achieve a positive work-life balance.
Between client demands, project deadlines, cultural norms, and individuals’ drive to achieve, long consulting hours are expected and accepted. However, just because people accept a situation doesn’t make it acceptable. Consulting firms might record positive staff sentiment among their consultants, but employees’ mental acuity and physical health don’t always keep pace with the PMA they project.
With burnout as a perennial cause of staff turnover in consulting practices, we’re asking whether it’s actually possible to achieve work-life balance in consulting firms. Whether well-being investments and interventions are working? And if not, why not?
According to research by Consultancy.uk, consultants typically work 50 to 80 hours a week to meet the demands of their role.
77 percent of consultants in the top of the market work more than their contracted consulting hours - on average 9.3 hours more - with senior male consultants putting in the most overtime at up to 12.4 hours per week.
In the Big 4, the number working overtime rises to 88 percent, with an average of 10.3 consulting hours overtime. And, in the notoriously extreme work environment of strategy consulting, this rises to 100 percent, with an average of 20 consulting hours overtime.
Consultants at boutique firms fare slightly better with only 67 percent working beyond their contractual consulting hours.
While long consulting hours and the expectation of ‘overtime, all the time’ are widely accepted as occupational hazards, the risks of poor work-life balance are manifold and well-documented.
According to numerous academic studies from the past ten years - cited in the Journal of Human Resource Management - extreme work contexts result in ‘work-life conflict [...] stress, clashes with family members, decreased job satisfaction and increased personal turnover’ all of which are ‘deleterious for individuals and organizations’.
Put simply, the impact of long consulting hours on employees’ mental and physical health is bad for individuals and for business. According to the World Health Organization Classification of Diseases, productivity and ‘professional efficacy’ decreases when employees are overworked and their intellectual energy is depleted - and voluntary turnover increases, along with the financial costs associated with it.
‘Last year was really bad. It works kind of exponentially. At 50 hours you have time for yourself in the evenings. Sixty hours is possible for quite a long time. If you work 70 hours, you work over the weekend. Then your energy level drops quite fast.’ Consultant interviewed for Work-life balance policies in high-performance organizations: A comparative interview study with millennials in Dutch consultancies, Journal of Human Resource Management
In this context, many firms have invested heavily in policies to mitigate the damaging effects of long consulting hours and poor work-life balance. But research shows this raft of interventions isn’t actually working.
According to 2022 McKinsey and Co research - across all sectors - four in five HR leaders are prioritizing mental health and well-being, and nine in ten organizations offer some form of wellness program aimed at reducing burnout. In consulting firms, these efforts often go above and beyond, recognizing the high prevalence of work-life challenges in the sector.
Some common work-life balance policies in consulting firms include
There are also monetary and non-monetary benefits used to off-set perceptions of poor work-life balance such as
These interventions are most prevalent in high-intensity strategy consulting firms, according to research in the Journal of Human Resource Management.
‘In strategy houses, where work pressures are highest, reported policies and practices go beyond health programs, training, and coaching, which are the most common work-life balance measures. Strategy houses monitor their consultants’ work-life balance experience weekly, provide options to outsource components of the work, offer multiple forms of compensation [...] and more abundant fringe benefits and social events.’
Policies aim to give employees a sense of control over their working hours, reduce the experience of work-life conflict, and increase job satisfaction. And from that perspective, they seem to work. The above research with Millennial consultants found high satisfaction with the policies in place to protect their work-life balance. However, these policies are not necessarily effective in tackling the issue of excessive consulting hours, which means consultants remain at risk of burnout.
According to McKinsey and Co, firms aren’t solving the right problem when it comes to work-life balance. They’re investing in interventions to support individual health and well-being without tackling the root cause of work-life conflict, which is organizational.
‘Many employers focus on individual-level interventions that remediate symptoms, rather than resolve the causes of employee burnout. Employing these types of interventions may lead employers to overestimate the impact of their wellness programs and benefits and to underestimate the critical role of the workplace in reducing burnout and supporting employee mental health and well-being [...] Decades of research suggest that interventions targeting only individuals are far less likely to have a sustainable impact on employee health than organizational-level interventions.’ McKinsey and Co, Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem?
Indeed, the World Health Organization officially recognizes workplace burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, in that it is something that can be attributed to organizational, rather than individual, factors.
In other words, when it comes to employee burnout, it’s not them, it’s you.
Whilst some personal issues might predispose employees to work-life conflict (such as parental or caring responsibilities or personality traits), the majority are systemic.
In consulting firms, multiple organizational antecedents predispose staff to longer consulting hours, higher work-life conflict, and increased risk of burnout. In particular, consultants’ work-life balance can be impeded by the following.
Project schedules create pressure to complete work within a given timeframe, which may demand excess consulting hours in certain periods. Balancing multiple projects simultaneously can cause peaks of intense workload and the need to manage conflicting deadlines and stakeholders.
Consultants are well-remunerated, which generates a high-performance culture with high client expectations. Clients often expect consultants to match their own working culture (such as 80-hour weeks in banking or weekend working), be always available, and travel internationally for meetings. This makes it challenging to maintain contractual consulting hours.
The technology used to improve work-life balance by facilitating ‘anywhere productivity’ can actually worsen work-life conflict. The ability to take meetings from anywhere makes it more challenging to keep work outside the home environment and disconnect from work. Plus, the increased connectivity can cause more interruptions during the working day.
Consulting attracts a driven workforce, typically early-stage professionals without the lifecycle triggers of work-life conflict (a partner, children, etc). Graduate recruitment, working conditions, and ‘Up or Out’ policies skew the demographic toward the young and hungry. As a result, consulting firms are primed with people more willing and able to accept work-life compromise.
However, beyond these organizational challenges and antecedents, there are other factors in play that undermine work-life balance policies.
In some consulting firms, long hours and a high-performance culture are synonymous. HR might attempt to enforce and improve work-life balance, but managers undermine this through continued unrealistic expectations of workload and availability, and through normalization practices that make consultants feel unable to push back.
‘There is a gap between what is said [about work-life balance] and how they [management] act on it. I have experienced this contradiction. You have to be really strong to improve your work-life balance.’ Consultant interviewed for Work-life balance policies in high-performance organizations: A comparative interview study with millennials in Dutch consultancies, Journal of Human Resource Management
Normalization is when employees recalibrate their expectations and accept the prevailing ‘norms’ within the business. Neutralization describes a sister phenomenon where negative aspects are considered to be offset by other benefits. Both are thought to partly exist as self-protection mechanisms for employees subject to extreme working conditions. And both can be leveraged by firms seeking to reduce resistance to long consulting hours.
A final cause of continuing work-life conflict is that some policies aren’t necessarily as benevolent as they seem. Academics found that when consultants are provided with household help with cleaning and laundry, for example, to improve the quality of the time they spend at home, it actually facilitates longer working hours. Labor in the work-life equation hasn’t been lifted so much as shifted in favor of the firm.
‘These different agendas need to be considered when interpreting work-life balance perceptions. While a common assumption is that work-life balance policies reduce work-life conflict and benefit the employee, this is not necessarily the case.’ Work-life balance policies in high-performance organizations: A comparative interview study with millennials in Dutch consultancies, Journal of Human Resource Management
Given the complex matrix of factors that contribute to work-life conflict in consulting firms, it seems that work-life balance will continue to elude employees in all but the most fastidious firms.
Although organizations may attempt to make changes, systemic, cultural, and internalized factors continue to undermine them. Considering the benefits of long consulting hours to consulting firms in the delivery of services to demanding clients, there may not be an incentive to get to the root of these issues. Especially in a highly competitive environment where other firms may not follow suit.
However, given the acknowledged damaging impact of burnout on consulting firms and their employees, there is an ethical and commercial incentive to keep trying. Even if consultants are managed into perceiving their work-life positively, their health and intellectual abilities can still become depleted. This makes managing work-life balance one of the key challenges facing consulting firms.
This results in reduced professional efficacy, higher voluntary employee turnover, and the cost of replacing staff - and potentially clients - when a consultant leaves the firm.
Realistically, daily or weekly work-life balance may not be achievable in consulting, due to the deadline-driven nature of the work. However, aiming for a broader balance can be beneficial.
‘Look for ways to create a weekly or annual balance sheet. Thus, one can aim for an average balance per week, for example by having certain days and/or nights kept fully free from work, or per year, by working intensively for some months, but choosing other months for less intensive projects,’ recommend at Consultancy.uk. ‘Especially important here is to communicate balance needs, for managers who can provide the space.’
As indicated by Consultancy.uk, an important step is to challenge the normalization of long consulting hours with individuals at all levels of the organization. Work-life policies will be undermined as long as internalized normalization of extreme working conditions cascade from managers to new employees. This is a challenge for the entire sector, not just individual firms.
Research has shown that some work-life policies ‘neutralize’ rather than improve work-life conflict. Eating on-site rather than eating at home. Socializing with colleagues rather than with family and friends. Whilst others actually backfire, as in the household help example above. Review your policies and honestly reflect on their objectives and how they support your overarching strategic objectives.
In intense strategy consulting firms, employee health and well-being are often monitored weekly, whereas this is less frequent in other consulting firms. Managers who find consultants are burnt out or at risk can enforce downtime away from work.
By framing long consulting hours as an issue for health and productivity, such monitoring is perceived to support high performance rather than undermining it, making it more palatable in a managerial culture than normalizes long hours. Another reframing opportunity is to position reduced hours in terms of cost savings.
Work-life balance for consultants is predicated by the projects they’re working on, so improving project and resource allocation can alleviate some of the peaks in pressure.
For example, shorter projects are common for strategy consultants and create especially intense periods of work.
‘Because we have short projects, we work very fast. Three times a day, we check with the whole team what needs to be done.’ Work-life balance policies in high-performance organizations: A comparative interview study with millennials in Dutch consultancies, Journal of Human Resource Management
Whereas longer projects can offer greater flexibility in terms of deadlines and delivery.
‘You know the meetings with the boss and the client are the milestones of the project. These are typically busy weeks and you know that in advance. Thereafter, you often have 1 or 2 weeks to tie up loose ends. These are very relaxed weeks.’ Work-life balance policies in high-performance organizations: A comparative interview study with millennials in Dutch consultancies, Journal of Human Resource Management
Intelligent resource allocation provides a balance of project types that can help limit the duration of high-pressure periods.
Resource allocation software provides project managers with tools to visualize workload, availability, and utilization at individual and group levels. Improved project resource management lets them plan and monitor workload more readily, keeping consultants working at an optimum level to avoid burnout. It also helps match consultants to best-fit projects where their unique skills will deliver the best ROI.
So you want to create a project roadmap — but don't know where to start? Here are some tips.
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