In an excerpt from his new book 'The 4-day week', Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes offers a candid reflection on the moment he reached his breaking point - and how this would later shape his views on the working world.
My breaking point as a worker was accompanied by an epiphany. After ten years at Macquarie Group in Australia, one of the world's pre-eminent investment banks, I had attained the position of Executive Director, one of the senior executive positions in the group, in charge of the retail, private and equity banking operations. By all measures of success in a savage industry, I was a winner. But my marriage had fallen apart, and the prevailing workplace culture had become toxic with interpersonal intimidation and extraordinary competitive ruthlessness. The job was nothing more than an endurance test, and I hated my life.
This was all to be expected, of course. My formative years in the finance industry prior to Macquarie were in the City of London in the 1980s, where work was defined by a punishing schedule. Apparently, in order to compete with our American investment banking rivals, we had to get into the office before the Tokyo stock market closed at 7.30 a.m. and leave after New York had opened 12 hours later. With my commute and the vagaries of British Rail, this meant getting up just after 5 a.m. and arriving home after 10 pm.
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This pattern held until one night in the office, when my boss, Harry, broke down in front of me. I had been taught from almost my first day that to leave work before my manager was career suicide, even though he lived much closer to the office than me and obeying the rule meant forgoing a lot of much-needed rest. When I witnessed Harry succumbing to the inhuman strain of our industry's culture, I understood for the first time that he was under the same pressure I was. He drove his underlings so hard because he needed his team to perform to a standard that impressed his superiors.
Harry's public mental collapse didn't cause a ripple in upper management. The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress had not yet been identified, and any discussion about mental health in the workplace was still years away. To Harry's credit, he reacted to his own moment of crisis by changing what he could. I still had to get up before dawn to attend company-mandated early meetings, but now I only had to work 10- to 12-hour days and could catch an earlier train home. Harry was the first person I worked with to recognise that the productivity equation was not calculated on the number of hours worked, and his team could be just as productive in a shorter workday. Sadly, Harry's mental collapse owing to work-induced stress would not be the last I would witness in my City career.
Others found ways to let off steam that made the capitalist hysteria of the Big Bang era look like a black comedy. Two university friends of mine were working at a Japanese bank in London where being the last person to leave the office was a badge of honour. My friends decided to use the very late nights as a weapon to break their bosses, and would tag-team all evening – taking turns to pop out and return to the office – the objective being to outlast their Japanese team leader while each getting the respite they needed and artfully avoiding any penalty.
In the end, the management caved. Their 'solution' was to install a bedroom in the office so senior executives could rest and none of that group would lose face. The staff had no right to question the punishing schedule the institution demanded of them; instead a solution was fabricated so managers themselves could survive the same regime they were inflicting on employees. Extreme though this may have been, I grew accustomed to the culture of the City and was not surprised when I moved to Australia and my London-based boss would frequently call me at 2 a.m. It was a convenient business hour for him, and no concession was ever made for the difference in time zones. As my twenties passed in a blur of endless work, my personal life took a back seat. Actually, it wasn't even in the car, but running along behind, barely visible through a cloud of dust. The solution many of my colleagues found was to date those they worked with – otherwise, you would never see each other. At a middle-of-the-night closing documentation session in Australia, a young lawyer told me she treated these long, intense meetings like speed-dating events – it was her best chance of meeting someone. I knew what she meant; when I finally got married, it was to a co-worker.
For a long time, my philosophy was a product of this culture. Overworking and treating people like racehorses – to be whipped, to do your bidding, to make money – are alarmingly easy habits to replicate when they are all you know.
Then came the moment of crisis and the epiphany. I was walking across Rushcutter's Bay Park in Sydney and contemplating a line from Nick Hornby's novel Fever Pitch: 'Is life shit because Arsenal are shit, or the other way round?' Or rather, was my life in Sydney shit because of my work, or was my work shit because my life was?
You know you have hit bottom when you are pondering that as a serious philosophical question. In that moment, I admitted to myself that I despised the person I had become. I had to get out. And I made a pact with myself that in every business I worked in from then on, I would do things differently. In the last 18 years of my working life, it has been surprisingly easy to keep this promise. In any important workplace scenario where my decision is needed, I silently ask, What would Macquarie have done? Then I do precisely the opposite.
- This excerpt was taken from Andrew Barnes' book. It's available for purchase at bookstores or online.