At the end of the first working week in January you may already be lamenting the lack of opportunities for excising the pounds you gained in December. If this is the case, you are right to do so. If you work for a consulting firm or an investment bank, exercise is very important. So is a trim physique. Without them, your career may be at risk.
A new study by academics at the European University of Vladrina in Frankfurt, Frele University in Berlin, Copenhagen Business School, and Royal Holloway College at the University of London, emphasizes the extent to which conspicuous exercise is a professional issue. Published in the Scandinavian Journal of Management, it should give sedentary professional services employees food for thought.
The academics interviewed 45 people at two different management consulting firms and reached the conclusions that a) exercise is important if you want to fit in, b) exercise is important if you want to achieve the sort of body appropriate to professional services work, c) exercise is important as a means of getting promoted, and d) exercise is important as a means of deflecting the stress that comes from the realization that your job doesn't match your expectations.
Although the study applied to management consultants, there are plenty of overlaps with bankers and the academics draw parallels with previous banking-specific studies. These include, a 2009 study showing that City of London professionals spend a lot of time at the gym to enable, '“the creation and maintenance of a corresponding body image symbolizes commitment, dedication and conformity to these expectations”, a 2014 study which found that ageing hedge fund professionals try to maintain a 'warrior physique', and Alexandra Michel's seminal study on how young bankers burn out through overwork and pressure to exercise.
If you want to impress your banking and consulting colleagues, this is what the new study suggests you need to do.
Like banks, the consultancy firms in the study ran sports clubs for staff. The consultants participated in these clubs and also spoke at length about their sporting achievements. "I like sports. I train for the marathon . . . I try to play football as well," said one. "A lot of my social activities involve sport . . . I am currently training for the marathon," said another. "I like sports like running, going to the gym and tennis," said another. "I try and do one big thing every year, last year I went to do the Kilimanjaro," said another. Spot the trend?
By talking about all this sport and mountain climbing, the academics concluded that the consultants were trying to project images that, proved, 'their bodily strength, endurance and resilience, thereby confirming the professional identity of being “an achiever” who can “overcome challenges”.'
The academics also found that looking fit and participating in sport is, 'part of the rite of passage for joining the executive team.'
They interviewed one consultant who said he'd met a senior consultant who'd just been promoted. "We had a conversation about what the process is, because they have to go through some horrible challenges . . . kind of a weekend, where they are assessed constantly . . . on all sorts of activities, also some crazy outdoor [sport] challenges," he said.
Another said that becoming an executive in a consulting firm requires that you succeed in, “horrible . . . crazy outdoor challenges,” which can involve physically strenuous forms of exercising, including marathon running and climbing mountains.
The academics also found that leaving work early for exercise was acceptable and a "legitimate reason to escape a high-press environment."
The researchers also found that consultants were using sport as a form of “stress relief”, an “outlet” to find “inner balance”, or a way of 'creating a sense of self beyond the professional'.
The academics spoke to one junior consultant who'd been given a slug of work on Friday afternoon that required preparation for Monday morning. She worked all weekend as a result: "You just have to accept that this is the nature of the work here. What I do then is to run it off, I like to run off all of these things that bother me."
Another young consultant said he was keen on not being "all about work," and that he tried realizing this, "through sport, through running and doing various athletic challenges."
Lastly, the researchers suggested that it's especially necessary to stay trim if you're female. This is because the female body is innately perceived as, "weak, overflowing, uncontrollable." You have been warned.