Are You Working Yourself to Death?

The tragic passing of a young intern is a cautionary tale for another group of workaholics: entrepreneurs

Written by Deborah Aarts

Earlier this month, a few young professionals returned to their shared London, U.K. apartment to a grim discovery: the lifeless body of their roommate, Moritz Erhardt. Erhardt, a 21-year-old German student, was by all accounts an ambitious, bright, handsome young man who’d been working all summer at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. A lot. In fact, in the days before his death, he reportedly worked for 72 hours straight without sleep.

While officials have yet to determine Erhardt’s cause of death, the prevailing theory is that sheer exhaustion played at least some role.

If this proves correct, Moritz Erhardt worked himself to death.

It’s a tragic story, and it’s getting a lot of press because Erhardt was an intern, a group whose exploitation in the name of “paying dues” is increasingly (and justifiably) under fire. This incident is causing many—including Bank of America Merrill Lynch—to review their work-all-hours cultures. Indeed, I’ll bet that it’s caused a lot of you to take a closer look at the working conditions you’re offering your interns and/or junior staff.

Read: The Art of Ethical Intern Hiring

But I can think of another cohort who logs long hours, bears inordinate stress and can’t ever seem to unplug. Have you stopped to check your own work habits lately?

While it’s a well-worn stereotype that all entrepreneurs are workaholics, this is one stereotype that’s true more often than.

The average workweek of a PROFIT 500 CEO this year was 56 hours. And that’s just the time engaged in the daily grind of running the company—if we factored in every moment spent thinking about the business, that average would skyrocket.

Last week, Waterloo, Ont.-based tech entrepreneur Joseph Puopolo tweeted the following: “An entrepreneur never truly takes a vacation, they just slow down a bit and are given a bit more time to think strategically about problems.” When I questioned him on whether that was enough to really recharge, he countered with a simple “you never really turn off.”

The exchange echoed a quip made by Bruce Croxon of Dragons’ Den and LavaLife fame at this summer’s PROFIT 500 CEO Summit in Toronto. He said that for an entrepreneur, work/life balance is basically the following: “Work your ass off for a decade, sell, take a year off.”

Arguments like Puopolo’s and Croxon’s are based on the belief that in order to build a great business, you have to be on the job 24/7. It’s that all-hours commitment to the venture, such thinking goes, that separates clock-punchers from truly great business leaders.  But at what point does the toll on your health and wellbeing—not to mention that of your family—come to be too much?

The crisis point can. This is illustrated most pointedly in the excellent cover story of PROFIT’s upcoming October issue. The piece, written by PROFIT editor-at-large Joanna Pachner, details how the stress and toil of running a business nearly killed one Canadian entrepreneur. It’s a haunting story, and a must-read. Look for it on PROFITguide.com in early September.

Others haven’t been so fortunate. In April of this year, Reddit founder Aaron Swartz committed suicide; according to his girlfriend, the cause was “exhaustion, fear and uncertainty.” Not long after, Jody Sherman—the founder of Ecomom, a 28-person startup that had raised more than $12 million in funding—took his own life after he learned his firm’s finances were in dire straights.

This column isn’t to nag. Who am I to do so? I know better than to lecture you about work/life balance. I am not an entrepreneur; I am not responsible for the hundreds of duties that stretch your days into 12-, 16- or 20-hour territory. But I’ve been covering business long enough to know that overwork isn’t something to roll your eyes at. It has very real consequences—and not just for young professionals cutting their teeth.

Would you consider yourself to be a workaholic? Would your friends and family agree? Do you think being an entrepreneur must involve 24/7 work? Share your thoughts by commenting below.


Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com