Pan Jie was a 25 year-old auditor in PwC’s Shanghai office, starting her career with the firm last October. She died of acute cerebral meningitis on April 10th, having “ignored the illness until a fever surged,” after catching the flu on March 31st. Reports have stated that Jie told a friend that “she had been working up to 18 hours a day and about 120 hours a week,” prior to her death.
A doctor quoted by one of the reports explained the cause:
Dr Wang Guisong, an expert in the neurosurgery department at Renji Hospital, said overwork can make people more vulnerable to infections. “Based on her symptoms and her low white blood cell count, it’s reasonable to conclude that overwork led to a weakened immune system, which makes her more vulnerable to infections,” Wang said. “When an infection worsens over time, people can develop acute cerebral meningitis.”
According to the story, PwC has denied that Ms Jie died from work-related fatigue but it’s hard to argue that her fatigue was caused by anything else. The firm is providing psychologists for employees, has sent a “team” to comfort Jie’s family and has even offered to assist with the cost of her funeral and this kind of outreach is admirable but the overarching culture within Big 4 firms is really what is of concern here.
Fatigue from overworking is not uncommon in the Big 4 life but when someone dies as a result of the fatigue, that’s will obviously get some attention (even if it’s just for a little bit). At some point it became acceptable for sleep – and health in general – to become of secondary importance when it comes to having a successful career. If you don’t believe me, look around you; everyone is exhausted and that’s part of the life inside a Big 4 firm. The pressures of performance in the name of client service are so great that people regularly come to work when they should be in bed or, in some cases, an emergency room. Of course there’s the macho contingent inside these firms that say “sleep is for the weak” and that’s the kind of attitude that perpetuates the culture of “getting the job done.” How is this acceptable? Not only can lack of sleep kill you, it doesn’t really do much for job performance. We’ve all seen people make big mistakes when they’re lacking sleep and yet no one considers the root cause. If you think skipping a few hours of sleep a night is worth to a few thousand dollars a year (at best) then you’ve got some seriously fucked up priorities.
I admit that people aren’t dropping left and right inside these firms due to lack of sleep but let’s quit pretending like working hours upon hours, putting your health at risk and coming into work looking like – pardon the expression – death warmed up is some kind of badge of honor.