Moritz Erhardt and the Protestant Work Ethic

Moritz Erhardt, deceased intern.

When twenty-one-year-old German finance intern, Moritz Erhardt was found dead of apparent exhaustion in his London flat, news outlets around the world were quick to blame Bank of America and the banking industry in general. Few have bothered to touch upon the effect of culture on how people approach work-life balance. Organizational cultures don’t exist in vacuums and are products of the larger society in which they’re formed. In this case, the context being the Protestant work ethic which permeates the cultural and economic spirit of many Western nations—including the US, UK and Germany.

For most in the West, the concept of the Protestant work ethic isn’t a new one. You may know that nations with a Protestant past tend to view hard work and long hours as a type of currency— leading to economic acquisition, respect and increased social status. Banking culture in many Western societies subscribe to a similarly intense work ethic. If you were to ask a banker, several of them may report instances of all-nighters, thwarted vacations and lost personal time. While the story of an industry’s “culture” killing a young man makes for sensational headlines, it’s important to recognize how time orientation within certain cultures affects what most call “corporate culture”.

The fact that Erhardt was German, worked in London, and had attended university in the US is especially relevant because all three nations are among the most industrialized in the world. Consequently, they exemplify the very spirit of capitalistic values and the Protestant work ethic that drives them.

Compared with employees in the Mediterranean, Latin America and other fluid time cultures, workers from such cultures have a controlled notion of time and generally, a different philosophy regarding general priorities and work-life balance. In controlled time cultures, staying late on the job or working through the weekend indicates dedication—especially important when a bonus or promotion hangs in the balance. In fluid time cultures, people would interpret such habits negatively, citing inefficiency and poor time management.

Do you live to work, or do you work to live? What is it about your culture that informs your philosophy around work-life balance?

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