Work-life balance

Consulting, like many other industries such as accounting, investment banking and law, is known for the challenging work, high intellectual tasks and attractive benefits. However, a coin always has two sides, and the other side for consultancy is the intense working environment. The nature of the job compels consultants to demonstrate a huge commitment to work, with project deadlines to be met for clients and internal work adding to the workload. As a result, most management consultants have to work between 50 to 80 hours in a week to satisfy the job, thereby giving consulting a reputation for its challenging work-life balance.

Across the globe there are several studies that have confirmed the long working hours for consultants over the years. Research conducted by shows that, across the board, 77% of consultants at 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 consulting 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 ranks. Women often work one hour less of overtime per week than men at the junior level, and two and four hours less at the senior manager and director levels 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 clocking an average of 20 overtime hours per week. Within the Big Four, this drops to 88% at 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 consultants with a higher tenure at a firm work less overtime hours on average, thereby highlighting the investment consultants typically require to acquaint themselves with a new environment. 

Improving the work-life balance

Over the past decade, consultancies are increasingly implementing policies that provide consultants with 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 appears 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 indicate that they work less than 40 hours per week, of which 43% are women. A major portion of advisors work between 36-40 hours per week or 32-36 hours per week. Across the board, most junior consultants work full time as illustrated by the fact that 87% of men and 73% of female juniors have a contract of 40 hours per week. At the 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 requiring fewer long days is sometimes an option. Such leisure comes to an end when the next big project comes along, for which consultants have to run entire business hours again. Additionally, incorporating an extended period of unpaid leave or taking a sabbatical is being supported by more and more consultants, albeit 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, demanding overtime on fairly fixed 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 is increasingly incorporated into the talent management strategies, the metric for which has become which consultancies have found a manner of arranging the long-term career aspirations of consultants. Therefore, 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.

In addition to all the measures mentioned, consultancy firms are also seeking to open the subject of work-life balance up for discussion, examples of which are coaching discussions. Groups of consultants in 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, given 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. 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. Others may define their balance per year, by working intensively for some months but choosing less intensive projects for other months. It is especially important to communicate balance needs to managers who can provide the space. 

Set priorities
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 one, you will have to compromise on the other, making it a question of quality over quantity.

Delegate chores
Hiring assistance such as 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 be dealt with. Consider the everyday tasks of making appointments, paying bills, printing documents, shopping at the supermarket or cleaning. These kinds of chores can altogether consume a large part of your already-scarce time, which makes it a wise decision to delegate them if possible. 

Use technology
Communication has become a lot easier over the past decade. It is now possible to hold a telephone conversation with family or friends while on your way in the car, or send mails via wireless internet during lunch or the train ride to a customer. Being physically absent from home does not mean that you are emotionally absent.

Clear boundaries
It is not a good idea to bring a laptop to a family outing, or to be constantly on the phone with colleagues. However hectic the schedule is, it should still be possible to set clear boundaries between work and private life, which 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 allow for ‘minor balancing acts’ everyday. Take the stairs sometimes, or 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 would likely go unnoticed.