What killed a banking intern in 2013 was the crisis of 2008

August 21, 2013
August 21, 2013

Investment banking’s brutal hours are more than questionable office culture—they’re deadly.

Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old German student who was enrolled in the summer internship program at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) in London, died on Aug. 15 after allegedly collapsing in the shower from an epileptic seizure. This was after he had pulled three all-nighters in a row at work.

Erhardt’s friends said he regularly worked through the night in an attempt to impress the bank’s directors. A BAML spokesman said Erhardt was popular amongst his peers, a highly diligent intern, and had a promising future.

These events indicate that pulling all-nighters is essential these days if you wish to land a job in banking—an industry where staff numbers continue to be cut.

Since the financial crisis erupted in 2008, there’s the presumption that if you work for a financial services firm, you work whenever the client wants you to work. This thinking has grown significantly, says Chris Roebuck, corporate advisor and visiting professor at Cass Business School in London. “As these things have cascaded down the organization, people on the bottom are put under a lot of pressure,” he told Quartz.

This is driven by the fact that clients are paying millions of dollars in fees. And with fewer jobs available in investment banking and more information readily accessible on the work of investment banks, the industry has grown ever more competitive, which is exacerbating the trend, he said.

Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, stress and sleep therapist at Capio Nightingale Hospital in Marylebone, carries out corporate health assessments at large investment banks, including BAML and Goldman Sachs. She told Quartz the culture of working long hours has gotten worse over the past five years and that the number of people who come to her weekly sessions have increased by 25% in recent years.

“Many of the teams (from professional services firms) I am working with have upped their hours from 10-12 per day to 12-15 hours. They are expected to respond to emails on weekends, on holiday and even overnight in some cases,” she said.

Brian DeChesare, founder of the website mergersandinquisitions.com, told Quartz however he does not believe the culture of working long hours is a recent phenomenon. “Ever since the 1990s junior jobs at investment banks have never been regarded as nine-to-fives,” he said.

Sarah Butcher, editor at careers website eFinancialcareers.com, also said that juniors in IBD departments of investment banks in London have worked crazy hours ever since the late 1990s and early 2000s. “US banks brought the practice to London. It’s the US banks that have traditionally worked people the hardest,” she told Quartz.

Since 2008, companies have been under increasing pressure, however, to prioritize profitability with fewer resources, which has led to less focus on health and safety requirements for employees, said Roebuck, who worked in HR of several international companies for a number of years. “But companies would never admit to this,” he said.

Research from the University of California has found that insomnia, alcoholism, heart palpitations, eating disorders and an explosive temper are common among entry-level investment bankers. “Leaders in organizations need to be thinking about this as an issue, as overworking your staff is immoral and counterproductive in terms of risk, work- and client quality,” says Roebuck.

But despite the long hours and the long-term health risks, landing a job in investment banking is still seen as the golden standard for many ambitious graduates. A 2011 study in the Guardian found that investment banking is still the most popular choice among those looking for jobs at 30 sought-after universities, with 8.5% applying for such positions.

Will the death of Erhardt create a shake up in how summer interns and junior analysts are managed? UK Labour MP Andy Love, who sits on the parliamentary commission on banking standards has called for the cultural reform of the industry following the death of Erhardt. “Banks should come up with plans to tackle the overwhelmingly male culture within banking. Changes to this ‘macho’ culture, which includes working ridiculously long hours, need to be made,” he said.

But it’s unlikely these changes will actually be put into place. “BAML will probably just say Erhardt had health problems and other investment banks won’t feel they will be directly affected,” Roebuck said.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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