High salaries, variety of projects, the opportunity to travel, flexibility and freedom, exposure to many different industries and business models and fast-paced work environments.
You may agree if I say, that the job of a consultant has many advantages, right? The reasons above are surely why you have chosen this career path. But every job has its bright and dark side. Even when you love your profession of consulting, stress factors can catch up on you as well!
The Bright Side Of Consulting
Joining a consulting firm is one of the most effective and surely quickest ways to build a vast and valuable network and it will allow you to build multiple relationships across multiple organizations. Considering being a consultant, surely only very few would think of the consulting stress factors.
Those networks will mostly span around different cities, states or even countries. It is the art of making connections, not only in terms of work but also with the people you work with.
Another advantage is that you mostly work with people who have the same characteristics as you do, and this leads to uncomplicated teamwork.
It also gives many opportunities to learn, grow and progress fast since most projects are fast-paced and working in a team will help you learn from the ones with more experience. It will also help you develop a lot of new skills as you are constantly challenged.
“One of the reasons I chose to go into consulting was the stimulation it brings at early stage. Unlike a lot of other jobs, even the most junior consultants do some thinking. And it gets better and more interesting as you go up the ladder…I can’t imagine how I could have learnt so much in terms of sectorial experience, methodology, analytic and presentation skill in 4 years’ time. This knowledge not only comes for project work but also for the different training you get in any consulting firm.” (Quora, 2012).
The Dark Side Of Consulting
But what can start as a dream job can turn into a nightmare.
Yes, life as a consultant can be stressful. And stress can lead to many negative consequences, private as well as health wise.
“After fighting long and hard to secure a grad-level offer at a consulting firm, I’ve been there for a few months now and have realized I hate it. While I think a lot has to do with my current manager, who is something else, I find it extremely stressful every single day, on top of spending 4-5 days in the “field” each week,” reports a consultant on Wallstreetoasis.com.
Obviously, one of the main reasons for taking this career path is the high salary, not considering that the working hours are way higher than those of other employees. Consultants have weeks of 50/60 hours of work while normal workers enjoy 40 hours weeks.
“I suppose I didn’t realize that, despite being an “overachiever”, there are limits to what I really care to accomplish, particularly as they take me away from the things I truly cherish (family, friends, sleeping in my own bed and having a bit of time to unwind). The other stuff–money, prestige–don’t seem nearly as important.” (Wallstreetoasis, 2018).
Consulting has a hierarchy, which can be profitable or cause really high levels of pressure. Of course, if you are outstanding in what you do, you will be rewarded, but what if you just do regular good?
“On the other hand, quite a number of my colleagues from the corporate world are perfectly content in their jobs. In fact, one person in particular comes to mind who has been in the same role since he was a grad 10 years ago. He has not been promoted and even the GM has nudged him to be more ambitious. But he just grins and asks ‘why? I’m Content,” reports a consultant on Quora.com (2015).
However, another consultant reports “I’m not the type of person who is interested in the partner track. It’s fantastic money, but I cherish my time, and would rather spend it with loved ones. Not that it’s mutually exclusive, but partners travel constantly, more than anyone else, and it’s just not for me.” (Quora, 2016).
Furthermore, may be no routine office pressures, no back biting to manage, nor office politics to deal with and no boss but that doesn’t mean that there are no other factors which cause high levels of stress. Every job has an uncertainty, there are times of low work periods, work delays and sometimes just simply work overloads. The biggest causes are increased work responsibility compounded by the fact that a consultant mostly doesn’t have a colleague’s network to rely on or get supported by. It seems more like a rival’s battle, since everyone wants to shine out in their function to be promoted.
In a report, one consultant reports “internal competition is huge. Trust is normally not too great. Nobody trusts anyone – I guess it is difficult as self-doubts are the order of most days as consultants. Repeated questioning of data points, hypothesis, only to save backs, over time, results in a trust deficit within teams. At some point, if you are not careful, you start doubting your own self – doesn’t really prepare you for a job outside, if you don’t quit at the right moment. Most consulting teams, projects are unlike the best practice shared here.” (Quora, 2012).
Also, the anxiety of the critique about the work is added up.
And yes, consultants may travel all the time but as an unknown former worker of McKinsey tells “at some point I was annoyed. That was when I didn’t have rest for two months. I landed somewhere, worked the whole day and left again. Sometimes I even forgot where I was. There was no rest, only the current Project.” (Ariane Breyer, 2012).
“One of the misconceptions of management consulting life is the excitement of going on trips. At first, traveling can be very motivating but as soon as consultants realize much of their time is spent on planes and trains, they miss the comfort of staying at home,” reports another consultant.
And there are even more sources leading to stress, such as financial pressure, personal life changes, difficulties in relationships or slippages in delivery. There may also be more personal sources as in unrealistic expectations, perfectionist characteristics or the inability to manage uncertainty.
These and even more factors may all cause grief and stress. In extreme cases they even lead to breakdowns.
Statistics show that most consultants don’t last beyond three years. This is eventually due to the travel, the politics and the workload which sooner or later catch up with them. The leap onto consulting looks great on the resume and the experience and skills that are built in that profession can’t be attained elsewhere. But almost 10% of all consultants already opt out after a few years. They mostly take up other career paths. Almost 30% of the former consultants switch as a normal staff to large companies. But unfortunately, they are not being welcome. But where does that come from? Well most former consultants find it very difficult to adjust to the life of a normal employee. They have difficulties to meet people who follow more than just their work.
This may be the main reason why 60-70% of the former consultants switch to self-employment.
But not all consultants leave voluntary. Especially in the big companies there is the saying ‘up or out’. A standstill in the career is not permitted.
However, it is safe to say that everyone of us has experienced work-related stress. Even if you are consultant and passionately consulting – stress factors are everywhere. Unfortunately, some of us experience this stress situations more than others while others find it motivational.
“I think that a lot of people only think of the positive aspects of being a consultant, not foreseeing the other aspects of the business that can drag down the high views of the independent life. One needs to realize that working hard and more than others is the simple fact of the 1-person shop. Without that understanding, stress will overtake them,” reports a consultant.
Effects Of The Negative Aspects Of Your Job
On an online salary and career database on PayScale.com they conducted a survey and asked employees about their stress levels at work. The interesting part of this survey is probably the jobs that made it to this list.
Consulting was on number 6. Roundabout 62% of the employees reported a ‘high level of stress’ in their job. It is a job which constantly puts you into new situations where you must fix something that is ‘broken’.
The fact that about 26% of consultants are self-employed, rises the impact of the success or failure of each project. This pressure leads to higher stress levels.
(You can read more about the survey here)
(Did you know that consultants have a three times higher average of self-employment than other occupations?)
Consulting Stress Factors
To prevent health consequences, it is important that you know which stressful factors threaten our health. The following presented factors have been significantly determined as unhealthy.
Having Too Little Job Control
This factor is defined by the influence that you have on your work and work procedure. As an example: is everything mandatory? Or do you have influence on how you plan and organize your work? Do you have work due times?
This should sound familiar to you, as a consultant.
The job control decides whether you are autonomous or not at work. A scope of action is mostly interpreted as a restriction and can lead to discontent.
Many studies have shown that a nonautonomous way of work leads to depression as well as cardiovascular diseases.
It is important to mention, that a lot of autonomy at work doesn’t presume better work circumstances. This still depends on your own qualification, motives and requirements.
Mark Wong, a former consultant says that one of the things that surprised him most, were the little control over the projects he would receive. He is of opinion that the world of consulting is driven by the demands of the clients and not by the expertise of the employees. He also defines it really stressful to be staffed on a project in which the consultant has no expertise.
Tillmann Neuscheler writes, that especially the new-comers of this career, work in a ‘head-down-and-deliver-mentality’. Depending on how far you are in your career, you might find yourself in that situation.
However, there is one consultant who reports “a simple slogan I use – “I rather work like a slave and be paid like a king” than work for someone else where you normally are worked like a slave and paid even worse.”
The coping of this consulting stress factor may depend a lot on your personality.
Work Intensity Too High
How much work do you have to do in which ways and over how much time? This factor defines intensity, quality and time of your work. The interaction of these three factors influence on how you perceive your work intensity.
Studies have shown a correlation between high work intensity and depression as well as anxiety disorders. (1)
High Job Demand. The job of a consultant is very diversified and brings new challenges on a daily base. Additive to that comes the high responsibility with a non-structured daily work routine. They must have a high grasp to handle those demands.
This may not succeed with everyone, which leads to higher levels of stress and mental pressure.
“I am not very stress-sensitive but some of my colleagues have really had some downtimes on certain intense and high-importance project. One of the crucial drivers for stress is the manager’s attitude (some will always push their team as hard as possible instead of optimizing) which once again may vary a lot from one firm to another…” (Quora).
As Martin Elwert, a consultant at Roland Berger says “you are surrounded by people who are aiming to achieve results that are above average. That makes you to do the same.” This feeling of competition causes internal pressure and higher stress levels as well.
But what stresses one person, may motivate another one, one consultant reports “it’s so much better to work with smart people. Although it sometimes creates unhealthy competitivity, it is definitely a plus at the end of the day.” (2)
Unappreciated Work. Another stress causing factor could be unappreciated work. It can happen that you work on a project, put so much work and effort in it, but the company simply doesn’t like it, or the implementation is too expensive. This means lost time and more pressure, maybe even a lost assignment.
“So, you will spend long hours preparing power point presentations, with lots of data crunching and analysis. Multiple times, it will be trashed either by an internal (a partner) or an external client. Couple of reasons – Consultants (including project leaders) are seldom sure of themselves and have to go through multiple iterations just to get something client ready. In the end, all the effort does not always impact or change anything at all for the client. Maybe, the client isn’t ready to change, but a power-point slide will also not make the change happen.” (Quora, 2012).
Worst Consulting Stress Factor: Missing Social Support And Mobbing
This consulting stress factor includes several behaviors as in: support through helping behavior, emotional support (trust, affection), social approval through feedback, informative support through advice and orientation, group activities and the membership of a network.
Insufficient Social Support. The relevancy of social support is shown in todays’ knowledge that as lower the social support gets, the higher turns the risk of depression and psychological diseases. Some even theorize that it may lead to negative effects on the cardiovascular system. Isolated employees may even experience a higher level of stress due to missing social support.
Many consultants complain about how they do a lot of people’s jobs at their company, all the leg work to get the projects done but receive no positive reinforcement. This leaves them out in the cold and give them a feeling of frustration. It is important, for every employee, to receive positive reinforcement in what they do, to keep them motivated and want to keep on going.
Mobbing and Bullying. Missing social support can also lead to mobbing. Little fights, differences in opinions, formation of little groups or nasty remarks may appear in every kind of job. And those can be handled, if they don’t occur on a daily base. It is totally normal to not have a good relationship with every person around. Sometimes it just doesn’t ‘click’.
It is different though, once those smaller remarks and fights turn into purposeful and long-term bullying and mobbing towards one person only. Studies show that bullying and mobbing lead to a higher risk of depression, anxiety disorder and psychological harm.
Most Annoying Consulting Stress Factor: Long Working Hours, Overwork And Shift Work
Long Working Hours and Overwork. Long working hours and overwork are shown to lead to higher risk of psychological effects as either anxiety, depression, insomnia or simply hostility. The physical effects include a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Studies have shown that these findings depend on the amount of overwork which an employee does.
But not only long working hours and overwork lead to physical impairment, another factor is shift work. The risk of heart attacks, cardiovascular diseases and strokes are significant higher. There are also hints of a connection between shiftwork and type-2-diabetes.
According to Prof. Rau only physical effects are shown in connection to shift work.
Faking It. In an interesting study by Erin Reid, from the Boston University, she has shown that most consultants also only simply do as if they work overtime and in a high intensity. They use simple tricks, to reduce their worktime. As an example: they choose clients who live nearby. Or they don’t discuss when they leave a bit early or simply leave their phone connected with the company network.
This was shown by 31% of all male workers and 11% of all female workers.
The difference in numbers between the male and female employees comes by the fact that the female workers were not as ‘transparent’ as the male workers. They mostly first requested fewer working hours while the male employees simply organized that themselves. This made the employer attentive towards the female workers.
(More about the study here)
Work Life Balance. Many consultants would also agree with the fact that the work life balance is poor when working as a consultant. A lot of consultant’s report that their personal relationships have suffered a lot, due to the overload of work and travels. They might not realize it right away, or they are willing to sacrifice their social lives for their career, but sooner or later, as they get older, they regret it.
One former consultant reports” …what made me quit was, I was tired. It takes so much personal effort just to be a consultant. After the third serious relationship that failed partly because I was always in some random city and not home, I was ready to start engineering myself a good job…”
On the other side, another consultant reports “the grass is always greener on the other side – I left for a non-profit, …The people were equally idiotic … Not having to travel around or stay in the office until one in the morning was nice, but after a while you need to come up with hobbies to fill up all the free time, or it just ends up getting wasted watching TV, etc… I’d rather more time be filled up with work, it makes the time off sweeter.” (Wallstreetoasis).
Food Behavior. Other consultant’s report that they gain a lot of weight, due to lack of time. In the morning it’s mostly breakfast at the hotel, followed by lunch at the canteen of the company and dinner with colleagues (or alone) at a restaurant. Sometimes that could be replaced by a quick stop at a fast food restaurant to continue with work. It is not easy or nearly impossible to follow a healthy food style because you are always on the go and not independent on the choice of food locations. In addition to that, it is also very difficult to go to the gym or do other kinds of sports because the weekdays are filled with work and travel. Very few consultants try to follow up with gym on their weekends, but due to fatigue or still work to do, they don’t catch up on that either.
“Most of the people I work with tend to be divorced or completely out of shape”, reports one consultant.
And of course, some consultants experience the opposite due to stress and lack of time, they lose weight.
To sum it up, the eating behavior suffers in either way and it leads to an unhealthy life style, which can also be added up to a consulting stress factor.
Health Issues. A former consultant, Rachel, who is now blogging, tells about her health problems during her time as a consultant.
She had Ulcerative Colitis which is an autoimmune disease that is essentially inflammation in her colon.
Due to the stress of her job, the lack of sleep, irregularity in her schedule, she started developing complications with her disease. She developed Uveitis, which is an inflammation in the uvea of the eye. “Never take your health for granted. Once you lose it, it’s hard to get it back – and sometimes you can’t ever get it back. If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed due to your job, remember – it is JUST A JOB.”
How about you let her words sink in for a moment.
(If you are interested on reading more of her blog, click here)
The Danger Of Job-Insecurity
Job Security. As lower the security of the job gets, the higher is the risk of negative effects on your health. This fact shouldn’t be very surprising. It leads to psychological impairment as well as physical diseases. Anxiety, depression and high levels of stress count to the psychological impairments. It also leads to higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. These effects depend on the individual rated security or insecurity of the job.
Big consulting firms are built like pyramids. There’s much space on the bottom and only few on top.
Rivalry. The internal rivalry in such consulting firms is immense. Everyone wants to reach the last stage as fast as possible and preferably alone. And that is what those big companies also represent and expect: fighting employees. There are strict rules on how long you can stay in one stage. It varies from one to three years. As soon as the company sees that you either don’t show enough effort or your workmates perform better, you are out.
The motto is ’Up or Out. Grow or Go’.
Reports and statistics also show that approximately one out of five consultants resigns (on a one year view).
Other future plans. There are also consultants, who only start this career to quit after a few years. They are aware of the consulting stress factors and they know they won’t last long and only want to get good references and network for their upcoming jobs. But in those cases, as well, fears might come up, as one consultant reports “…sure, I’m learning to be part of big teams, the processes involved with implementing solutions…but I’m not sure I’m learning other marketable skills for outside of consulting. There’s often the joke that flies around that consultants just talk abstractly or move numbers around in excel. I’m a bit worried myself that this is what I’m doing. I’m kind of worried that these skills won’t apply as strongly outside of consulting in a more typical job, as they would want someone with 2/3/4 years of experience with a tool or position. Consulting seems to be based a ton on luck as to what project you get on…”
Changes in the company. Stress may also appear, when the fear that the company might downsize or relocations comes up.
The Future. Another new issue added to the consulting stress factors is the fact, that the future of this career is unclear. It had a glorious reputation for decades.
But times have changed. Doubts have risen towards consultants. Are they really good in consulting? Is their ‘consult’ really helpful?
For the first time, consultants complain about the same problems as their clients. They experience what they have made profit of. These changes all come from the structural change.
Companies have become more professional, they are pickier and consider everything. Also, the digitalization has helped a lot. A lot of information is just a ‘click’ away.
There is a radical change in the world of work, which also includes the profession of a consultant. It is unclear on how it will develop.
Paycheck. In addition to the already mentioned consulting stress factors, Jennifer Laible reports on Forbes “the biggest shock for new consultants? Changing the way, they think about pay and benefits. When you’re a consultant, you don’t have a paycheck coming into your direct deposit account every Friday without fail…You have to put more work into managing your own pay and benefits and spend more time keeping your pipeline full…Consultants learn to plan their income differently …In my experience, it usually takes people about 18 months to get used to the new mindset about money and benefits…”
Destructive Leadership – The Most Difficult Factor To Handle!
Destructive leadership is defined by employers who don’t give enough information about their demands and tasks. They are very distanced with their employees, give unexplained criticism or may even get offensive. Most of the employers use these behaviors to show their power and control.
Other employers may utilize them because they experience a high level of stress and pressure themselves and want to give it over to the employees.
However destructive leadership leads to lower self-esteem and well-being of the employees. Studies show that it may lead to physical impairment, stress and even burnout.
Disorganized Leader. Consultants complain about supervisors or managers who are very disorganized and disrespectful and whenever they put things off, they blame their employees for disorganization and procrastination.
They can’t get the job done themselves, or ruin something and find someone under them to blame. This is a very unhealthy thing to do because it frustrates the employee and causes grief.
Connections. In his experience report, Mark Wong says, that the allocation of ‘cool’ projects depends on who you know, rather than what you know. In other words, project partners staff the interesting projects to the employees they know, so that it may leave you empty handed.
The New-Comer. Not only ‘who you know’ is important, but also the age plays an important role. New-starters complain that their age sometimes can be a liability. They say that young age can go against them, because large companies would prefer more experienced expertise. This may not be a direct destructive factor, but indirectly it does affect the employee. How is a new-starter supposed to get experience in their profession, when the good jobs are given away to the already-experienced employees?
Also, a lot of employers give their new employees a very hard time at the beginning. Looking through forums you might see how new-starter consultants complain about how their manager is giving them a hard time with too much work, too little explanation on the assignment or simply negative feedback. Because the young consultants are new to the company and fear risking burning bridges, they mostly keep quiet and accept the pressure they are given from their employees. This, of course, adds up to the consulting stress factors and rise the stress levels.
Sexual Harassment. Unfortunately, there is another disturbing factor which may come from the employers: sexual harassment. Even today, in this modern society, there are cases of sexual harassment or gender differencing.
There are consultants who report about their employers who make either gender offensive comments, simply difference their male or female employees or give hints about immoral offers. One former consultant remembers how her former female employer was sexually urging a young consultant. Experiences like these can be really burdening and effect the condition of your mental well-being. They should definitely not be ignored. If one of these issues may ever affect you, don’t hesitate to stand up against them. No employer has the right to use his power to this extent. It is a criminal offense.
The Effects. The effects of bad work structure lead to physical as well as psychological impairment. Moreover, it can also have bad effects on the company you work for.
Studies show that approximately 20-30% of all employees are affected by impairments (Angerer, 2014). It should also be considered that most of the stress-causing factors don’t appear alone, which may lead to even higher risks than known.
The risk of illness is high on long –term. Those who do this job over years, are way more risked on getting a cardiovascular disease, back problems or a burnout.
These factors are the official acknowledged stress causing factors. Of course, every job brings additional factors, differencing per profession. In the occupation of consulting, stress factors may also appear in different forms. (3)
But to calm you down, there are many consultants who also say that “as hard/impossible as it is to imagine at this moment, the constant daily stress level WILL subside over time, you will start to feel more at ease in the position. Eventually you may be picking up an ever-increasing pay cheque and wondering why your employer is paying you so much.” (Wallstreetoasis, 2018).
More Consulting Stress Factors That Might Catch Up On You
Let’s come up with more ‘consulting’ stress factors, which many of you might experience on a daily base.
Your Own Personality. There are also factors which may cause stress at the workplace, as in personal characteristics and too high personal expectations, perfectionism and many more.
Increasing stress at the workplace might also reach out into homes and social lives.
Causes for that are mostly long, uncertain or unsocial hours of work, working away from home, taking work at home, high levels of responsibility, job insecurity and job relocation.
Once the stress from work is brought home, it affects the social life.
It undermines a good quality of life outside work which is a very important buffer for stress caused by work.
Other consultant’s report how they just can’t take off their consultation. No matter if at work or outside with friends or family, they always consult. As they spend so much time at work, they accustom it as a character trait. In other words, they never stop consulting, they never stop work. This can’t only be annoying for yourself but also for your environment!
Part Of A Minority Group
Women In Consultancy. Women are most likely to experience stress. This is due to the burden of child care and domestic responsibilities at home. Another cause is the fact that women are generally lower paid, have a lower status and suffer under discrimination and harassment. Especially at workplaces with a lot of male employees. Unfortunately, female employees are confronted with more stress-causing factors than men. While doing what their male workmates do as well, consulting, stress factors may have different or bigger effects on them than on their male workmates.
Racism. Not only sexism could cause discrimination but also your ethnical background. Racism has been an issue, which has always existed and unfortunately never really vanishes.
It is not a secret that white men hold more leadership positions than any other group. Afro-Americans are underrepresented in consulting. But this issue is not caused by simple racism in the traditional sense. It is more caused by fears towards outside groups and subtle attitudes. It is about the review that the consultant would receive. It’s about the racial biases which could either lead to empathy and influence behavior or not.
A consultant from Amsterdam, a multicultural city and the capital of the Netherlands, reports that at the company that he works, institutionalized racial bias is very common in the fields of consulting, management and marketing. Even though around 20-25% of the university graduates are none-white.
Qualified people get rejected because the management thinks they don’t fit in because they are ‘different’.
However, it should not be unsaid that a lot of Afro-American consultants do see positive change and are looking forward to further improvement in the integration of ethnical minority groups.
But it doesn’t only go one way. One consultant (‘white man’) reports how he mostly has worked for IT companies and felt that they have all been of Indian nativity. He tells about a feeling of being excluded of conversations and a divide between him and the Indian-Americans.
The feeling of being discriminated or not being part of the group can cause high levels of stress and have effect on the well-being of an employee. It causes a feeling of uncomfortableness and lowers a good work atmosphere.
Summing it up
Let’s admit it, also in the vocation of consulting, stress factors appear in a huge variety. A consultant’s life is not stress-free. Of course, there are a lot of positive aspects, which make it seem very attractive. But there are also a lot of stress causing situations which can cause grief, stress and in extreme cases even breakdown. I’m sure if you sit back and think, you can even come up with more stressful situations at work.
You may not be conscious about them, because you consider yourself as strong and resilient, but at some point, they will catch up on you. Be smart and prevent them! Don’t overestimate yourself.
Hopefully this article made you conscious about the stress that your work can cause. Don’t take this matter easy, stress that occurs at work is not only a once in a time situation, but it continues and adds up, which can lead to serious health issues. We are all human beings, with feelings and limits.
Our mental as well as our physical well-being should be set as our number one priority.
Was this article helpful? Are you now aware of the fact that also in this dream job of a consultant, when you are consulting – stress factors are present and might catch up on you?