One Saturday morning I met with a friend for brunch. She looked physically exhausted, like an after-work drinks session had drawn on a little too long and too late into the evening.
The session with workmates — let’s now call them colleagues — had indeed run late, only there was no alcohol or downtime involved. Nor was there much choice for her regarding when she could go home, which she eventually did at 6:30 in the morning.
This friend had spent the night working on a deal at a major firm. She’d made plans for the previous evening, but had to cancel them when things suddenly progressed with a contract that the client was looking to sign. With four other colleagues she had “pulled an all-nighter”.
The group of colleagues had bonded, she told me. Bleary eyed and in desperate need of something other than another energy drink to maintain focus, they had found themselves sharing a laugh over the monotony of their professional services work and the fact they were putting in an additional 12 hour shift, having just worked five 12 hour days in a row.
Plenty of us have experienced all-nighters. My university days were filled with them – drinking so much caffeine that my fingers would be shaking at the keyboard while finally dealing with the fact that an essay could no longer be put off. The assignment would always get handed in on time, just, and I’d return home to a couch or a mundane and simple casual job to see out the rest of the afternoon in a zombie-like state.
But, like many things you don’t learn at university, few of us knew the all-nighters would extend into our professional working lives and potentially even be seen as a measure of our own ambition and success in a job.
All-nighters in some industries and workplaces are a regular occurrence. The fact they could be seen as a ‘bonding experience’ suggests they can also carry an element of peer pressure to get involved. Indeed, it’s not always a matter of choice: a mistake occurs, a last minute project comes up, a need to suddenly go over the numbers emerges, or there’s simply too much work to get done during regular hours.
All-nighters can also be viewed as a sign of commitment. You hear about how hard the boss works, and war stories of conference tables filled with empty pizza boxes and coffee cups from teams who shared their expertise into the wee hours of the morning. Politicians often tout their ability to pull an all-nighter, openly declaring they’re going on 48 hour benders to promote their policies. Tony Abbott did it in the lead up to the 2010 Federal Election, as did Barack Obama in 2012, saying he was going on a “campaign marathon extravaganza”.
The problem is that all-nighters don’t work for all of us. And it’s unfair to treat everyone’s willingness to put in those hours equally.
There are commitments that require us at home. There’s the personal desire to not spend the 24 hours following an all-nighter feeling physically exhausted. There’s even that odd need to get in some exercise, eat a meal at home, find half an hour to catch up on the evening news. Then there’s the fact some people are simply more productive than others, and shouldn’t have to stay late for the sake of their slower colleagues.
It’s telling that there’s a lack of women in certain industries where those who’re able (or most willing) to pull all-nighters are present. M&A work, dealmaking, finance and law are often associated with long hours and late night requirements. Be unwilling to be present as an office owl and your career will suffer as a result.
But be willing to pull an all-nighter and disastrous decision-making could result – jeopardizing the very project you’re working on, your career, or worse the safety of others. As Ron Grunstein recently commented on The Conversation, some of history’s worst human-error led accidents can be linked back to an all-nighter or a series of all-nighters. He notes how sleep deprivation affects concentration, your memory and complex thinking. It can cause a failure of judgement so severe that you won’t even know you’re making an error.
Meanwhile, how about the health impacts of an all-nighter? Well, unsurprisingly, they’re not good. Studies show a lack of sleep can seriously affect your physical and mental health, with sleep deficiency hurting everything from your capacity to learn to your metabolism, blood pressure, appetite and immune response. More seriously, sleep deficiency has also been linked to diabetes, anxiety, depression, heart disease and cancer.
There are some positives to pulling the occasional all-nighter, especially for focusing on a single project and meeting a difficult deadline – as long as it’s on your own terms, preferably in your own home, and not at a time when your best decision-making processes are required.
But being regularly pressured into such hours by other colleagues or a boss is not sustainable. I wonder how long my friend will last with her firm, and potentially even in her industry. It’s a shame that such talent continues to be wasted due to cultural norms that see spending the night in an office as a sign of commitment.