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Are You Working Yourself to Death? (Probably)

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What will you risk to get ahead?

It's a question we likely ask ourselves multiple times a day without really realizing it. Do we skip a workout to respond to the onslaught of emails or miss an important family event to manage a client's demands? It's likely that we often subconsciously weigh the pros and cons in our head before choosing a solution we hope to be the right one.

On rare occasions, these decisions, of what's right and wrong in terms of how far we'll go win our goals, reap unknowing consequences. This may have been the case in the tragic story of a 21-year old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London.

The facts surrounding the case of Moritz Erhardt remain sparse. We know that the German exchange student finished a semester at the University of Michigan's business school and was near the end of this highly sought after and fiercely competitive internship opportunity. According to various reports, he worked through the night eight times in two weeks, including three consecutive nights before he collapsed in his apartment and died. Mr. Erhardt reportedly suffered from seizures, which could be brought on by exhaustion and the cause of death has yet to be determined. Regardless, the media and blogosphere have already cast their judgment that this ambitious boy died from overwork.

Unfortunately, we live in culture that applauds overworking. Commonly heard complaints, such as "I am killing myself at work" usually get met with a pat on the back rather than a look of concern. Although, it's rare that even extreme cases of overworking lead to death, it's not unheard of. The Japanese even have a word for it. If anything, this tragic death should force us to examine the unwritten cultural rules that equate extreme work practices with success and idleness with failure.

John Trougakos, as associate professor of Organizational Behaviour at Rotman's School of Management believes the ethos encouraging overworking is only getting more pronounced. From an organizational perspective, he sees more corporations adopting an "austerity mentality" where they want to "get more for less," increasing pressure on employees.

"There is a shift from the well-being of the worker to the well-being of the bottom line. In physical labour you know when you are tired. We don't pay the same attention to psychological fatigue. So we tend to ignore it," he said.

Some changes companies could deploy include giving employees more autonomy on how to use their time. His research shows that this lessens people's fatigue. Also, create a corporate culture that supports well-being, so that employees don't work during lunchtime and take a break.

Tammy Heermann, principal of global leadership development at Knightsbridge, also observes that not having enough hours in the day is the "new normal," especially among professional services and investment firms. She sees a shift where professionals, even technical ones such as lawyers and accountants, are being asked to add additional tasks to their roster, such as networking, business development, and community building. Tack on to that any other skills that may secure them a promotion and the typical work week quickly disappears.

Adapting to this new normal is no easy feat but there are tools employees can adopt, including learning to say "no" strategically and creating some healthy boundaries.

"Get it through your head that 'being done' or 'finishing' or 'accomplishing everything on your to do list' is not life as we know it anymore," Ms. Heermann asserted.

"Every day requires prioritization in a way that hasn't been required in the past. You need to carve out milestones, strategic priorities, and live with the fact that some things can't get done. Then communicate your focus, get feedback, and readjust if necessary," she added.

Any change in corporate culture will not take place overnight, especially in environments where excessive hours are a long-held tradition.

"I was one of those people. I would work around the clock," recalled Whitney Johnson, a Harvard Business Review blogger and co-founder of Rose Park Advisors in Boston. Ms. Johnson, who started her Wall Street career as a secretary before moving up to investment banker, noted that grueling hours weren't only the domain of the finance world and watched her husband engage in the same behaviour when he worked on his PhD in molecular biology at Columbia. The same applied to their friends working as medical residents.

At the time, Ms. Johnson didn't think much of it. It was just "paying your dues" but her perspective has changed over the years.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't do this to anymore but the reality is that for very competitive jobs, people still expect and it and many will do it if they want the job badly enough," she said.