Pandemic driving junior staff burnout in professional services

29 March 2021 3 min. read

Junior staff at consulting, law, and financial services firms are suffering burnout as the pandemic drives longer hours in isolation, according to a recent report in the Financial Times.

Professional services workers already faced higher rates of burnout than most other jobs, owing to heavy workloads often in excess of 80 hours per week, tight deadlines, and hefty travel schedules. Though business travel may have temporarily abated, the pandemic has driven up working hours while removing in-person social interaction – consequently boosting mental health issues and burnout among workers, especially at the junior level.

The pandemic drove up demand for restructuring services, followed by a boom in M&A and private equity deals – creating more work for consultants, bankers, and lawyers. A record 8,000 private equity deals were announced in 2020, while Chapter 11 bankruptcies with liabilities greater than $10 million grew by 16.9% last year.

Pandemic driving junior staff burnout in professional services

Many junior professionals are having trouble managing the crushing workload. Earlier this month a group of first-year investment analysts at Goldman Sachs told management that they have been working an average of 95 hours per week and suffering from anxiety and insomnia. An associate at a US law firm told the Financial Times that they have been working approximately 150% of their targeted hours in 2021.

The remote work and isolation of the pandemic context has added extra weight to the burnout scale for junior professionals. The fast pace and heavy workload in legal and consulting roles is no longer balanced by social interaction and face-to-face teamwork, and perks such as swanky events or work drinks and dinners have evaporated.

“Before you could build a sense of a team even if it meant long hours in the office,” a Brussels-based partner at a law firm told the Financial Times. “Now people are stuck at home doing very unglamorous work from their bedrooms.”

It’s also more difficult to duck out for a well-needed vacation amid persistent travel restrictions. Some staff also report an implicit expectation to always be available to work, especially with the prevalence of home offices. The home has functionally become a never-closing office for many consultants and lawyers.

Many of the firms contacted by the Financial Times report increasing difficulty with retaining junior staff in this context. More yet are fearing a wider exodus if the current conditions persist.

Kevin Ellis, chair of PwC UK, told the publication he worries about retention, especially since 3,000 new recruits joined the Big Four firm remotely in 2020. He said new employees lack a network of friends in the office, and it will be important to foster a welcoming and collegial environment when the return to offices happens.

Consulting firms have been offering various benefits and services to their staff to fight pandemic burnout, including wellbeing applications and counseling options. Deloitte, for example, has been running a “coffee club” to match employees to connect over Zoom.

But the root causes of burnout – heavy workload and social isolation – are unlikely to be addressed in any meaningful way in the short term. The former is just part of the job description; the latter, which is important in helping neutralize the effects of a hectic schedule, can’t effectively be solved until the pandemic is over.