What I learnt about the corporate world from my time at a City internship – and what the Government must do to help workers

In France, law prevents employers from contacting employees outside of work hours.

I sorely envied this protection during my time at a City internship, especially when I’d be frantically refreshing my e-mails on the train to work just in case there were any urgent tasks I’d have to complete in the morning. My stress began the minute I woke up and wouldn’t subside until I fell asleep, as I’d occasionally have Slack open until late at night. I lived and breathed work.

I was lucky enough to have the chance of moving back to my parents’ house in the suburbs of North West London after graduating, a privilege which would have afforded me with the position of taking up an unpaid internship. While my parents had a property our family didn’t have disposable income; instead of pursuing unpaid work in the field of my dreams (journalism), I opted for below-average-graduate salary in a ‘related’ field, marketing.

I would wake up early so I could walk twenty minutes to the tube stop before sitting – or, more usually, standing – on the ‘semi fast’ (one hour) train before walking another ten minutes to the office. The nearest tube stop to my house was actually ten minutes away, but in a different zone; doubling my morning walk allowed me to save a grand total of £1 a day, but more importantly afforded me the only exercise I could get.

For those of you not tallying up, this meant I was commuting one and a half hours each way, spending a total of three hours a day simply to spend nine hours in an office. Working on my commute especially brought me down as it was essentially my only free time of the day.

I’d often work throughout my lunch break, juggling e-mails with eating and marketing campaigns; evenings were reserved for showering and making tomorrow’s lunch (after spending close to £60 a week – almost as much as I paid for rent in my university town of Nottingham – on the privilege of getting to and from work, there was no way I’d be sinking another £5-£10 a day into lunch), and sometimes seeing my partner simply so that we could sit in mutual misery as I was too exhausted to muster up an ounce of energy.

While I would often enjoy reading on the way to work (on the way back, I was occasionally packed into a train so tightly I hardly had room to hold a book), I’d despair on the days I had to sacrifice even this luxury for pre-working hours work.

Not that the idea of contracted working hours seems to matter much in the corporate sphere. I have spoken to enough graduates to know that a typical City working pattern goes something like this: you’re given a set of daily tasks (or set them for yourself), and you’re not expected to leave the office until you’ve finished them. If you choose to bunk off ‘early’ (that is, at the end of your contracted hours), you’ll have to do even more work tomorrow, racking up hours of unpaid overtime; if you’re working to a deadline, you won’t even have this opportunity. Contracts often state that employees will ‘occasionally’ be expected to do work outside of work hours unpaid (let alone being paid overtime) – what this really means is that British workers do two billion hours of overtime for free each year.

What this personally meant for me in real terms was that if I divided my salary by the amount of hours I’d actually worked, I’d be flirting with the legal line of the minimum wage. After Oyster card expenses, I’d be sacrificing an entire day to take home £50. I can only feel sorry for people who have to rent in London, though at times I seriously considered bucketing half my salary just to reduce this three hour commute.

The real kicker about the task completion v. contracted hours dynamic is that it seems to only work one way. Upon finishing your daily tasks, you might be give a list of menial activities by your employer who wants to ensure they are getting their money’s worth, or be made to start on an entirely new big project toward the end of the day. Hard work is often rewarded by more work, though I have also spoken to a number of graduates who have reported that after finishing their work they were unable to leave because they were still ‘contracted’ to work for those hours – despite not being given any extra work to do at all.

The mindset of piling employees with work, while seemingly logical, becomes baffling when statistics show that more work does not increase productivity. Japan, which has the longest working hours in the world, is also the least productive of the G7 nations. Humans are not machines; stress reduces our capacity to be productive, while the de-individuality inherent to the corporate sphere stifles creativity.

Let me be clear: I am not blaming any individual or employer, and can only thank my manager for his tutelage and kindness, especially when I informed them I was leaving my job due to familial circumstances. Nor am I a ‘snowflake’, and I don’t despise hard work. I do, however, abhor the mindset that in a tough economic clime young people should simply be grateful to be given work, without questioning how their company treats them. At university, I’d frequently pull late night shifts studying, happily swapping ‘free time’ for work because work was so enjoyable. I’ve worked as a residential tutor for a number of summer camps, happily working long and late hours believing in what I was doing. I have worked for companies that have treated me with understanding and as an individual, and have seen that we don’t need to commit to one corporation who has no consideration for our well-being.

I am just baffled that the corporate culture of self-sacrifice has not just become the norm, but an aspiration.

Megan Nolan has already done a fantastic job of deconstructing the folly of ambition and I can’t help but agree that no amount of work for something you aren’t passionate about is not worth the price of life, though selling one’s soul for the express interest of making someone else rich is seen as the ideal we all strive toward. We might get rich in the process, but then what? Having friends who spend all their wages on alcohol or nights out (because they can’t take much holiday, don’t have time to relax in the evenings and spend their weekends ‘resting’), or who have been raised by babysitters because their parents constantly worked long hours, I have seen that the high-flying life is not one I want to lead at the expense of doing things I actually want to do.

But I also understand it should not be, and often cannot be, the onus of prospective employees to forgo work because they dislike their company’s standards. I had the opportunity to leave my job, but as much as I abhor the idea that people should feel grateful for being given the opportunity to sell their labour at a bad price, I understand some people simply can’t afford looking for other work.

The government has a responsibility of ensuring its workers are looked after, and they can take some relatively simple steps to improve the lives of interns and high-flyers alike:

  • The government must ensure employers and line manages do not contact employees outside of contracted work hours
  • Working outside of contracted hours should be discouraged; people who work outside of contracted hours must be paid overtime
  • Employees should be encouraged to go home after completing necessary tasks
  • Employers should pay workers for commuting time, or cover travel expenses
  • Working during lunch breaks should be discouraged but if it happens must be treated as overtime and paid for accordingly
  • The government must ban unpaid internships while promoting quotas to ensure that internships are still offered for hard-to-break-into industries (the idea that big corporations cannot afford to fund paid internships is untrue)

But more than anything else, Britain must trial a four-day week. Studies show that four-day weeks increase productivity, partially by reducing workers’ stress levels, while also encouraging workers to pursue their own projects on their extra days off, leading to a healthier and happier workforce – who can get much more done, in much less time.

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Photo ‘City of London’ by Michael Gwyther-Jones on Flickr

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