Why reform to City working hours is vital for the health of its workers
Making the financial industry more sensible will benefit everyone, writes James Moore
City traders are demanding shorter working hours. And they might have a point. Yes, you read that right. Outside of politicians and, um, journalists, it’s hard to imagine a group of workers that attracts less public sympathy than the men and women who earn a considerable crust on the trading floors of City banks.
Many of them were in the thick of it when the world economy was nearly tipped off a cliff thanks to the toxic financial instruments dreamed up by their mates. Some of them make more in a year than most workers do in a lifetime. And now they’re calling for 90 minutes to be cut from their working day? Get thee gone, Satan!
But wait a minute, hear me out. Trading hours currently extend from 8am to 4.30pm GMT, and they’re harmonised across Europe (so it’s 9am to 5.30pm in Central European Time). Those working on trading floors typically start a lot earlier than that. And they finish later. That makes for a very long day and not a very family friendly one. Given the debate about the gender pay gap, and how best to close it, that’s worth bearing in mind.
The number of people with the requisite qualifications who can cope with both the pressure and the hours is limited and rates of burnout are high. The popular image of cocaine-sniffing traders getting boozed up at strip clubs after work is overstated. These days their occupants are as likely to be maths whizzes. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t prone to substance abuse.
There are those who argue that that’s the way it’s got to be. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I’ve sat and listened to top bankers eulogising about long hours and the “hard workers” from Eastern Europe they were targeting in the hopes of fattening their already overstuffed coffers. This wasn’t long after a young man had died after pulling a succession of all-nighters.
But it’s significant that the proposal for change has been tabled by the Association for Financial Markets in Europe, an investment banking trade body, along with the Investment Association. It suggests that there is a majority in favour of reform. No wonder. Those who can thrive in the current culture aren’t necessarily the sort of people you want in charge of billions of dollars.
No one is at their best when they’re knackered. They don’t tend to perform well. This is why the hours of airline pilots are strictly regulated, why there are supposed to be limits on how long people can drive HGVs, why it’s a disgrace that the restrictions on junior doctors’ working time aren’t tighter. City banks don’t, as a rule, attract people dedicated to doing good in the world. It’s the money that’s the draw for both the men, and the minority of women, they employ. Cutting trading hours won’t change that. But it might encourage a more diverse workplace, and diverse workplaces are, as a rule, better workplaces.
There are also strong technical reasons for curtailing the session. Nothing much happens early in the day. Trading volumes are light. Some 35 per cent of the action takes place in the last few minutes. In other words, cutting the session works from a cost/benefit perspective. Europe is, anyway, an outlier in terms of its stock exchanges. Its trading sessions would, at seven hours, be longer than the big Asian ones, at six hours, and Wall Street’s six and a half hours, even if the proposed change is made.
There is no great push for those other markets to extend their hours because the people in charge of them know that there’s no value to be had through doing so. With the idea coming from both the buy side and the sell side, it looks set to be considered. If the goal is making financial markets work more sensibly, it should be.