A Burnout Culture Led to Record Attrition at PwC. So It Changed Its Approach.

March 26, 2018, 1:19 PM UTC

To call a company’s culture hardworking or tireless used to be a compliment. It was a sign of business success—a righteous triumph, even—to consistently work long hours. And it was certainly an expectation at the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder.

The work was most important. A personal life? Fuhgeddaboudit.

At 169 years old, PricewaterhouseCoopers—No. 56 on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, it’s worth noting—has seen many corporate trends come and go, including the rise of the corporation itself. Like many companies, it has read the reports about so-called entitled Millennials who expect senior-employee perks at an entry-level position. And, like many companies, it noticed that its own Millennial employees responded differently than their predecessors to certain elements of the office environment—namely, a work-life balance tilted heavily toward a certain way of work.

According to a Quartz report, PwC faced “crisis-level attrition” among its youngest employees, at levels never before observed for this cohort, as the economy rebounded from the 2008-9 global financial downturn. What’s more, college students were reluctant to take jobs at the Big Four accounting firm. (For more on this subject, read “Five Things You Can Do to Attract Millennial Talent.”) Executives, perplexed, asked: What gives?

A study of 44,000 employees conducted with the University of Southern California and London Business School between 2011 and 2012 revealed that PwC’s Millennial employees (which the Pew Research Center defines as people born between 1981 and 1996) were as committed to work as anyone else and didn’t object to long hours. What they did object to, according to the study, was being at a desk or office for 15 hours to get the job done.

Here’s the rub: Non-Millennial employees felt the same way. The difference was that Millennials were more likely to voice their objections about it. (You can read PwC’s complete findings here.)

It didn’t take long for PwC to course-correct. The company has since streamlined the availability of flexible work policies, e.g. telecommuting or compressed work weeks. The vast majority of employees take advantage of them. (It also implemented a four-day retreat for newly appointed senior associates in the U.S., called Discover.) And the company isn’t worse for the wear, as Quartz notes: “People could work from home, or leave early on Tuesdays, and the company wouldn’t collapse.” Amen.