Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, looks at how organisations can manage talent when dealing with an intense and high pressured working environment. 

Whether it is implementation of a major change programme or new IT system, financial year-end or an ongoing heavy caseload it isn’t uncommon for professional staff to end up working over sixty hours a week.

These are the times when clients appear to require your attention 24/7 and you feel you always need to be at the ready - even on weekends and holidays.

Many professionals that I coach ask how they can better manage busy periods without compromising their health and relationships.

Between a rock and a hard place

With this in mind a recent article published in Harvard Business Review, Managing the High Intensity Workplace, caught my attention. It examines different ways people cope with “high intensity jobs,” which require a superhuman effort and long working hours to stay on top.

Most people adapt to these demands, according to the research, with one of three strategies which I paraphrase below;

Some adopt a “just accept it” mentally and immerse themselves in the job, work all the time, striving for perfection. By contrast others use technology and a little subterfuge to “fake it,” pretending to work long hours, but actually managing to cut themselves some slack by making sure they choose clients close to home or at least UK-based. 

The last group attempt to “challenge it” pushing back against extreme demands on their time.

In a culture that rewards hard work above all else, this last strategy is a potentially career limiting approach.

But there is also a problem with the first two which, as authors Reid and Ramarajan point out, enable the “always available, always working” culture to continue, and this is dysfunctional for everyone at some level. 

Look who pays the price

The long term outcome of each of these scenarios is a ‘lose-lose’ for both the organisation and the individual.

In a recent study for the CIPD, Dr Jill Miller reviewed a flurry of new research on stress at work.  She notes that nearly half of UK workers know someone who has quit work because of stress, while two thirds of workers say they have experienced symptoms of poor mental health due to workload.

Organisations pay the price too, losing experienced staff whose knowledge, skills and relationships are business critical.

In younger cohorts of workers, there are signs that expectations are changing. The assumption that talented young staff will accept a long hours culture as part and parcel of the career building process no longer holds true.

This is particularly the case when it comes to parenthood which is no longer just about ‘female talent retention’. Now organisations must wake up to the fact that millennials expect a different deal to previous generations, eschewing male/breadwinner, female/family-caring roles, with both men and women now wanting a more active role in parenting. Indeed, just last week in New York we had eight men and four women on one of our workshops for employees about to go on parental leave!  And this is an investment bank.

Does it really matter?

For those who perceive attrition to be a built-in and inevitable aspect of talent management, consider this: how can you be sure the staff that remain are your most talented?  Do they invest time nurturing relationships with family and friends, thereby making them emotionally stable colleagues who are a pleasure to be around?  Are they developing interests and connections outside of work that so often nurture new business?  Do the people you retain reflect an image of the business you need to be in the future or resemble the business you have always been? Are the ones that stay the role models that will inspire your millennials? Is it the entrepreneurial and innovative ones that are leaving?

I’m not sure that many organisations look at their talent loss in this way and instead place too much store on those that are willing to sacrifice their personal lives in their commitment to their career.

An agenda for change

It is clear to me that changes are needed at both an individual and organisational level. For individuals, it is critical to understand that your actions are what contribute to the culture: what you do can maintain the status quo or help change it.

I encourage the clients I work with to realise that by looking after themselves they can support a more sustainable working environment. Monitoring, on a daily basis, the factors that affect their health and wellbeing - particularly nutrition, exercise and sleep – can help strike a balance between work and ‘me-time’. It also helps identify when things are awry and risk hindering, rather than helping, productivity at work. I also encourage them to become the new “role models” for those below them in the company, which does mean pushing back on impossibly tight deadlines on occasion.

For organisations, a broader redefinition of the kind of people you want to attract, and the environment you want them to work in, should be on the agenda.

A good starting point here would be to think of a talent management plan which supports the needs of staff through different life stages.

It’s particularly important to think whether these plans allow for a balance of male and female talent to thrive at the different stages of their career – particularly around the stage when children come onto the horizon.

Firms also need to think about the support that needs to be in place across the organisation to support individuals. This could be a reverse mentoring programme to promote a better understanding among senior staff of the needs of their younger colleagues, or targeted interventions like our Accelerate programme which is specifically designed to help young female professionals hone their personal leadership style and develop sustainable career strategies.

A new fight for talent                                                         

The organisations who thrive in professional services in the future will be the ones who understand that a new generation of professionals is redrawing the rules of engagement when it comes to attracting and retaining the best people. It requires them to be more realistic in their demands of people’s time, and to have a more sophisticated understanding of the social changes which impact on typical career paths. The prospect of partnership or joining the ‘C’ suite is not sufficiently attractive to entice people to be “always on call” for the first 20 years of their working lives. Those organisations that help their talent to thrive, by allowing them to have rich and rewarding personal lives, will win out in the long run.


 By Geraldine Gallacher, Managing Director, Executive Coaching Consultancy.



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