‘Work longer, don’t leave on time’: Retail giant Wayfair chief executive’s email to staff sparks fury

A company chief executive has been attacked for sending a memo to his workers demanding they work longer hours, sacrifice their personal lives, and forget the “laughable” belief that they should be allowed to finish the day on time.

Online furniture and home goods retailer Wayfair made news for all the wrong reasons last month when an all-staff email from the American company’s boss was leaked and went viral.

In it, Niraj Shah told his 15,000 workers they should be prepared to work longer hours and to let work bleed into their personal lives for the sake of the company’s success and their career advancement.

“Working long hours, being responsive, blending work and life, is not anything to shy away from,” Mr Shah said in his note.

“There is not a lot of history of laziness being rewarded with success. Hard work is an essential ingredient in any recipe for success. I embrace this, and the most successful people I know do as well.”

The eye-opening email included a series of ‘Niraj-isms’ about workplace culture – some of which had been taken out of context or were “old and no longer applicable”.

“The one I would reference here that I heard was: ‘Niraj said that he does not think that we should work late.’ I would suggest that this is laughably false.

“Hard work is essential for success, and a key part of getting things done. Everyone deserves to have a great personal life – everyone manages that in their own way – ambitious people find ways to blend and balance the two.”

Wayfair faced tough conditions in 2022 and was forced to sack five per cent of its sizeable workforce after posting hefty losses.

The job cuts came at the same time as disclosures revealed Wayfair was forking out US$668,000 (AU$992,000) on private security for Mr Shah.

In his note, he told employees the company has turned a corner.

Wayfair reported total sales of US$2.9 billion (AU$4.3 billion) in the September quarter alone, up 3.7 per cent year-on-year.

“As we work our way through the holiday season it is really encouraging to see that we are back to winning. Winning feels good – and is a great reward for all of our efforts,” he wrote.

“Our market share is growing nicely, our repeat is increasing, our suppliers are leaning in, and we are profitable. This is something to be very proud of.“

The company’s continued success depended on everyone “being on the team” and doing more.

When the memo was leaked to the media, it quickly went viral and sparked a storm of criticism on social media, including calls for a boycott of the company.

In a statement, Wayfair defended the CEO’s sentiment and praised the company’s “world-class team and culture of open communication”.

“In his note, which was sent to our salaried corporate employees, Niraj was reinforcing some of the values that have contributed to Wayfair’s success, including questioning the status quo, being cost-efficient and working hard together to drive results,” it said.

But that kind of ruthless demand of workers isn’t just heartless – it’s also potentially dangerous.

Scientists have demonstrated that working long hours can be bad for your health, with research published in 2019 showing that regularly putting in long days of 10 hours or more increases the risk of stroke.

Various other studies have also highlighted the risk of cardiovascular illness as well as poorer mental health outcomes and reduced sleep quality among those who work long hours.

Excessive overtime has also been linked to an increased likelihood of heavy drinking, weight gain and smoking.

Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University, said the effects of regular long work hours on health are “wide-ranging”.

“Irregular work hours, or shift work, has also been associated with a range of negative health and wellbeing outcomes, including the disruption of our circadian rhythm, sleep, accident rates, mental health, and the risk of having a heart attack,” Ms Sander wrote in an article for The Conversation.

“And it’s not just the physical effects. Regularly working long hours results in poor work-life balance, leading to lower job satisfaction and performance, as well as lower satisfaction with life and relationships.”

Working longer than they’re meant to also duds workers out of lost earnings, with analysis in 2018 estimating Aussies performed 3.2 billion hours of unpaid work.

“And work doesn’t end for many people when they leave the office,” Ms Sander pointed out.

“If they aren’t doing extra work at home, taking calls, or attending after-hours meetings online, working second jobs is increasingly becoming the norm. Many Australians now work additional jobs through the gig economy.”

There are broader impacts beyond the individual worker, with an Australian study in 2013 finding boys whose fathers work 55 hours or more per week can display delinquent and aggressive behaviour.

Since the Covid era, workers increasingly expect flexibility from their employers, especially when it comes to remote work opportunities, various studies show.

The latest Global Insights Briefing from CT Group found 52 per cent of people expect to be working from home for the same amount of time over the coming 12 months.

CT Group Australia head of research Mark Gorter said despite a desire from many corporates for more staff to return to the office, demand among employees isn’t easing.

The research found 63 per cent of Australians support working from home and a large proportion of respondents say it saves them money.

“The majority of workers in Sydney and Melbourne continue to back working from home, particularly in the context of tough economic times,” Mr Gorter said.

“That continued desire is driven by saving money and people trying to get ahead financially.”

Those employers who forcibly reintroduce commuting costs to their workers’ budgets will face “steady resistance”, he added.

“When people feel such a strong sense of financial insecurity, the last thing you want to do is add to that.

“If the cost of living remains high, rather than attracting their employees back into the office, the wrong message from business leaders may inadvertently drive employees to leave altogether.”

Those faced with mandated office time who can find comparable pay and long-term certainty elsewhere with remote work benefits might opt to leave undesirable workplaces.

“We know from our research there are ways to encourage people back to the office, but the messages and style of communication needed – including the seniority of individuals who are doing the communications – will vary from business to business,” he said.

“Both businesses and employees need to think about ‘working from the office’ not as a simple return to pre-Covid norms.

“Working in the office more and flexibility are not mutually exclusive. Businesses in particular need to be communicating how employees can still have flexibility while spending more time in the office.”

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