You’ve probably heard that a career in management consulting at one of the top firms is no walk in the park, and that it can be challenging to balance the demands of an all-consuming workload and long hours with a healthy personal life. Here, we take a look at why management consultants at top firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain work such long hours, and what this means for their work-life balance.
How many hours do management consultants really work?
The number of hours that consultants at top firms are required to work each week differs by location. While offices in Southern Europe, Asia and Latin America tend to work the longest hours, the range across all geographies is 50 to 90 hours. Typically, 9am to 9pm are considered to be the typical ‘core hours’ at top consulting firms, with some variation on either side of the timeframe.
On average, a standard number of hours a consultant can expect to work in a week is between 70 and 75, including lunch and travel time.
Weekends aren’t included in a consultant’s working week. In fact, it’s frowned upon for consultants to work on the weekend and consulting teams actively avoid weekend working wherever possible. However, many consultants choose to put in a couple of hours on Sunday evenings to get organized for the week ahead.
Why consultants work long hours
1. The culture of consulting
A client-first culture is one of the hallmarks of a top consulting firm. As a result, these firms hire consultants who are ambitious, driven and determined to deliver for the client at any cost. In an environment where perfection is the goal and failure is not an option, it’s no surprise that consultants put in a significant amount of hours each week. Because firms and clients alike have extremely high expectations, working hours can be as intense as they are long. There is always more to do than time allows, the landscape can change rapidly and project teams are under constant pressure to deliver.
2. The economics of consulting
It’s standard practice for projects to be staffed with fewer consultants than it would normally take to deliver on the promises that Partners make when they sell projects to clients. This allows the Partners to generate both revenue for the firm and compensation for themselves. Inevitably, it also means that consultants are required to work long hours in order to meet the challenges of their workload and deliver the project according to the client’s expectations.
In addition to client work, consultants are also responsible for building and running the firm. This means that they must also devote time to doing internal work and making other contributions to the firm, which often adds to the number of weekly hours they have to put in. These activities might include contributing to an office initiative, conducting a piece of research, participating in recruitment or supporting a proposal to a new client.
3. The prospect of progression
Consulting roles at top strategy firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain are highly coveted and typically pay well compared to other professions. For those who progress through the ranks of a top consulting firm, salaries from graduate to Partner level are extremely competitive and can increase by ~30% year-on-year over a ten-year period.
Conversely, thanks to the ‘up or out’ policy in top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain, consultants who are placed in the bottom performance bracket following a performance review are usually asked to leave if there is no sign that they will be able to turn things around.
The prospect of progression and the consequences of underperformance both have a role to play in the long-hours culture at top consulting firms, ensuring that consultants put in as many hours as it takes to be successful.
4. The requirement to travel
Because consultants work hand-in-hand with clients to solve problems collaboratively, it’s vital for them to be at the client’s location on a regular basis.
This inevitably involves a great deal of travel, which can often be very time-consuming. Journeys are not always straightforward, as clients can sometimes be based in far-flung locations or at sites that are difficult to reach, like industrial estates on the edges of secondary cities. Travel can therefore contribute significantly to the number of hours that consultants spend on the job each week.
What does this mean for management consultants’ work-life balance?
The management consulting industry’s practice of long working hours can certainly make it challenging for consultants at firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain to strike a healthy work-life balance. However, it’s not impossible. Here are some of the lesser-known realities of work-life balance for management consultants.
Firms aim to support consultants’ work-life balance
Top consulting firms are well aware of the detrimental effects of a poor work-life balance and are taking active steps to address it.
Firms closely monitor the hours that consultants work and penalize managers and Partners who overwork their teams, intervening when required.
While it was once traditional for consultants to work at the client’s location for four days of the week, many firms have become more mindful about assessing the need for travel since the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in more of a hybrid working model, where consultants spend some each week on site with clients and the rest of the time working from either home or the office. As a result, consultants spend less time away from home than they did previously.
In addition, most firms have policies and initiatives to support consultants’ work-life balance, both to help existing consultants and attract new talent amid growing competition for top candidates. Many firms and local offices encourage teams to implement a ‘one night a week off’ model to allow consultants time during the week to spend with their families, pursue personal interests or simply rest.
To ensure that support is in place for consultants if they start to feel overwhelmed, many firms provide staff with access to a wealth of resources to support their mental health and wellbeing. This can include awareness and mindfulness workshops and free consultations with mental health professionals.
Consultants get time to recharge
While consultants undeniably work on projects at a high level of intensity, there are some opportunities to take a step away from the pressure.
The benefit of project-based work, in this case, is that nobody has to cover for your work while you’re away. When a project is complete, under certain conditions, consultants can take a few months off and their work won’t be impacted. It’s not unusual for men and women in top consulting firms to take one or more ‘leaves of absence’ of several months during their career. When they return, they are staffed on a new project and don’t have to justify, or even mention, their time off.
In some firms, consultants can take long leaves of absence for an extended holiday or personal commitments. McKinsey’s ‘Take Time’ program allows consultants to take an additional 10 weeks of unpaid leave during the year.
Consultants who are not staffed on a project are considered to be ‘on the bench’ or ‘on the beach’. During this time, they do various pieces of internal work to support the office and other teams. This work typically requires shorter working hours at a reduced degree of intensity, which can provide a welcome break from the pressures of project work.
Meanwhile, office retreats and week-long training sessions are baked into consultants’ calendars. These events can often prove to be enjoyable opportunities for relaxing, learning and making connections away from the demands of project or office work.
A career in consulting offers greater control than other top professions
While the demands on management consultants’ time and energy are significant, there are other professions that arguably pose a greater threat to work/life balance. Unlike lawyers, doctors and investment bankers, consultants never find themselves on call 24/7. And because they tend to work on only one project at a time, there are fewer clashing priorities to juggle.
As members of the project team, consultants are able to set project milestones, anticipate big meetings and make plans, all while owning and managing their own workstreams. Overall, therefore, a career in consulting offers a degree of control and autonomy than many other top professions.
If a career in management consulting sounds like it might be right for you, you can learn more in our complete guide to the management consulting industry. And if you’re preparing to apply to a top consulting firm, the resume and cover letter templates and specialized advice in our Free Resume Course will help you get your application into great shape.