Consulting, like many other industries such as accounting, investment banking and law, is known for the challenging work, high intellectual tasks and attractive benefits. But the coin always has two sides, and one of them is the intense working environment. The nature of the job compels consultants to demonstrate a huge commitment to work, with project deadlines to be done for clients and internal work adding on top of the workload. As a result, most management consultants have to work between 50 up to 80 hours in a week to satisfy the job, giving consulting a name for its challenging work-life balance.
Across the globe there are several studies that over the years have confirmed the long working hours of consultants. Research conducted by Consultancy.uk shows that, across the board, 77% of consultants in the top of the market work more than their contract hours. On average, the surveyed consultants work 9.3 hours per week more than they are paid for (consultants typically are not paid overtime).
However, there are clear differences between different consultancy firm segments and ranks, as well as between men and women. Junior consultants work more overtime on average than consultants, but this number rises again as they advance further in rank. Women work significantly less overtime than men, often one hour less per week, whereas for senior manager and director positions that difference rises to over two and four less hours respectively. Male consultants in senior positions work the longest, averaging 9.9 and 12.4 hours, with the latter number comparable to the average overtime of partners in the consulting industry.
In strategy consultancies 100% of the consultants say they work overtime, with an average of 20 overtime hours per week. Within the Big Four, this drops to 88%, with an average of 10.3 hours per week. Boutique advisory firms have the largest share of consultants who do not work overtime (33%), the average number of overtime hours per week is also the lowest among other business services. The data also reveals that as consultants with a higher tenure at a firm work on average less overtime hours, highlighting the investment consultants typically take, or need, to acquaint themselves with a new environment.
Improving the work-life balance
In the past decade, consultancies are increasingly implementing policies that provide consultants the room to get some time off from work to relax and recharge. The belief that higher job satisfaction and a satisfying life outside office leads to higher productivity, seems to have been embraced by a large number of the HR departments and partners in the consulting business.
The most common measure to improve the work-life balance for consultants is to work part time. 29% of the consultants surveyed by Consultancy.uk indicate that they work less than 40 hours per week, of which 43% are women. The major part of advisors works between 36-40 hours per week or 32-36 hours per week. Across the board most junior consultants work full time, at 87% of men and 73% of female juniors who have a contract of 40 hours per week. At Director / Principal level the average full time rate stands at 76%.
Another measure that is often used to improve work-life balance is to include days off between projects. This way, consultants can reduce their work levels by working less (time) intensive projects, or taking unpaid leave between two projects. Also, working on internal activities, with less long days, is sometimes an option. This expansion of leisure comes to an end when the next big project comes along, for which they have to run their entire business hours again. Also, incorporating an extended period of unpaid leave or taking a sabbatical is supported by more and more consultants, albeit often after a period of several years of hard work, or because of major changes or challenges in the private lives of the consultants. Examples include extended parental leave or leave for important personal obligations.
Another policy measure that may be applied is the ability to step back for a time from the traditional consultancy client facing or managerial position, to a more defined supporting position, as in HR, Training and Corporate Development functions. There are also measures emerging that bring more structure within overtime, for example, by making overtime fairly certain days. In such instances consultants, in discussion with managers, plan for events, such as a fixed day to exercise and meet family obligations, or some weekends that are completely exempt from any work commitments. On a more strategic level, work-life balance are increasingly incorporated into the talent management strategies, by way of which consultancies have found a manner of arranging the long-term career aspirations of consultants. So consultants can arrange, for instance that they want to be internationally active in a given period (which can be a great burden for the work-life balance) or assigned less challenging projects, or vice versa.
In addition to all the measures taken, consultancy firms are also seeking to open the subject up for discussion, for example, through coaching discussion. Also, groups of consultants with similar situations are brought together to share experiences and best practices in order to maintain the balance between work and private life.
Tips for a better work-life balance
For those who work in the management consulting industry, and are still struggling to balance their work and private life, below are some tips through which a better work-life balance may be reached.
Accept the situation
For consultants it is often difficult to create a good work-life balance. Although awareness alone does not solve the problem, it may reduce unrealistic expectations. Being mentally prepared for a full workload on a day, results in less stress when it does not go as planned.
Balance and broader understanding
Another tip is that balance does not necessarily have to be achieved from day to day. Often this is not even possible in a demanding environment such as the consulting industry. Therefore, the use of a broader definition of balance may be a better option. For example, look for ways to create 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. Especially important here is to communicate balance needs, for managers who can provide the space.
It is almost obvious that consultants cannot have a challenging career, an active social life and have the time to train for marathons, cook for a family and a full night's sleep. It is therefore important to set clear priorities and make a ranking of what issues are more important in life than others. To benefit from it, you will have to compromise on the other – it becomes a question of quality over quantity.
Hiring assistance, for example, a personal assistant or a householder can save a lot of time in terms of the issues that are at the bottom of the priority list, but must also happen. Consider the everyday tasks of making appointments, paying bills, printing of documents, or everyday things like shopping at the supermarket or cleaning. These kinds of chores can together consume a large part of the already scarce time, so delegate them if possible.
Communication has become a lot easier over the past decade. It is now perfectly possible to hold a telephone conversation with family or friends while under way in the car, or mails via wireless internet during lunch or train ride to a customer. Being physically absent from home does not mean that you are emotionally absent.
It's not a good idea to, during a family outing, bring a laptop to read and write reports, emails, or to be constantly on the phone with colleagues. How hectic the schedule is, it should still be possible to set clear boundaries between work and private life, but this requires proper time management and organisation. For the right reasons saying 'no' to questions or requests can be better than leaving tasks floating.
Find happiness in the little things
Try to, every day, here and there, to allow for minor balancing acts. Sometimes taking the stairs, or to take one bus stop further than the nearest to take a few extra steps and breath in a bit of fresh air following an otherwise hectic day. A fifteen minute coffee break with friends, or an interesting article to read outside work, are possibilities, and can do wonders for your energy and sense of balance. In terms of output this little break will likely go unnoticed.