OPN Leo Lukenas III
Image Credit: Leo Lukenas/linkedin

Two recent incidents in the US — one with tragic consequences — have put the spotlight on toxic work culture and unregulated conditions. The sudden death of banker Leo Lukenas III, 35, raises worrying concerns that are perhaps not new. He was involved in a merger deal worth millions and was reportedly working a 100-hour week in the days leading to the deal’s closing.

Lukenas’ death was caused by an ‘acute coronary artery thrombus’ which results in sudden cardiac death. In someone so young, it gives rise to disturbing questions about demanding work hours and the culture of wealth over welfare.

Despite the tragedy and an outpouring of anger, his employers, Bank of America quash both talks of action against his immediate supervisor or an inquiry into allegations that Lukenas was forced to work unhealthy hours. A decade ago, there was another sad incident at the same bank when a 21-year-old intern died of an epileptic seizure.

He too had reportedly been working long hours without sleep and although there was no evidence linking his death to exhaustion, it raised the antennae of several banks. Unfortunately, lessons it seems are secondary to loopholes in Wall Street on proverbial steroids.

On call through weekends and nights, pressure when millions are at stake and the intense scrutiny to deliver, all are a one-way street to the notorious burnout, a subject that was flagged by a group of anonymous first-year analysts in a major financial institution where they spoke of how a 100-hour week was impacting both their mental and physical being.

One wrote, ‘I am in a really dark place.’ Despite this collective stand, is proactive scrutiny of prevailing workplace ethics a primary objective for financial institutions?

Read more by Jyotsna Mohan

Social media chatter?

A stress-inducing environment not only reduces productivity but also makes an employee vulnerable and demoralised. Yet is it reason enough for companies, ruthless in their goals, to overhaul when it means hiring more, dividing the workload, and giving additional salaries?

A court in India observed that toxic work culture leading to death is a social problem that requires the government, labour unions, corporates, and health officials to formulate appropriate policies. But is talk of work-life balance and ethics filtering down or is it just social media chatter? It is not woke to demand better working conditions and prioritise mental health, just because previous generations went without it.

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka was the highest-paid female athlete globally when she pulled out of the French Open because of ‘feeling vulnerable and anxious.’ A similar stand has been taken by Miss USA and Miss Teen USA who recently resigned just days apart, leaving behind a stage that is more hostile than glamorous once it is curtain call. Ironically, while beauty pageants promise women empowerment, their ugly seamier side has never been more than a whisper away.

Despite the misogyny of these pageants that no talk of world peace can hide, it has been a well-oiled machine and the resignations by Noelia Voight and her younger, Indian-born colleague Uma Sofia Srivatastava are unprecedented amid whispers of bullying, control, lack of transparency and harassment.

Voigt says she resigned because her title was causing her anxiety, becoming the role model that contestants at these pageants strive for. Eagle-eyed social media consumers quickly pointed out that the first letters of the initial eleven sentences of her statement add to, ‘I am silenced.’

Both young women, however, cannot openly speak due to a watertight non-disclosure contract that binds them, but they chose to take a position because they could. Others like Lukenas carry on in a cocktail of stress, pressure, and livelihood. He leaves behind a wife and two small kids.

Need for middle-ground

If you are in the business, it is expected to bite the bullet. What we need is a middle- ground, for now, there are two extremes — the old school that works all hours no matter what because it is the conditioning, and it is exploited — and millennials who would rather quit than work if it comes in the way of their plans.

In the cut-throat world of business, whether it is blue-chip funds or beauty pageants favourable working conditions are not always indispensable especially when confronted by the profit motive.

Employer responsibility then becomes a patient wait for the headline to change and incidentally, some newsrooms are no less toxic. Earlier this year a senior journalist in Mumbai passed away from a cardiac arrest just outside his office. He had reportedly been abused and humiliated by the editor regularly including hours before he passed.

An American workforce survey reported that 19% of respondents termed their workplace, toxic while more than one in five respondents felt their work culture was detrimental to their mental health.

In India, this culture begins even before the workplace, when students are tutored for entrance exams in medical or engineering universities, and it continues as jobs don’t match the burgeoning workforce making even entry-level competitive.

But this culture of bullying is global, in Ireland, a woman with stage 4 cancer was recently asked to attend a work meeting the next day by her boss along with a letter from her doctor saying she was fit to work. If there is no compassion, the issues will lie unaddressed. But first, it needs intent.