Why are Goldman’s junior bankers still complaining about long hours?

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For junior bankers at Goldman Sachs, an 80-hour week isn’t a burden—it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

Young analysts complained to management that they’re putting in an average 95 hours a week, requesting that their work weeks be capped at a comparatively luxurious 80, the Financial Times reported last week. Presenting the results of a survey of 13 analysts’ working conditions in the form of a slide deck, they also asked that Goldman managers abide by the bank’s official policy that junior bankers have Fridays after 9pm and Saturdays off, along with other changes meant to alleviate stress and burnout among their ranks. “Being unemployed is less frightening to me than what my body might succumb to if I keep up this lifestyle,” one anonymous respondent said in the survey.

For people attuned to the culture of overwork at investment banks and elsewhere, the junior Goldman bankers’ distress may sound familiar. Back in 2013 and 2014, Goldman and other investment banks were responding to a raft of similar concerns about the demands placed on young talent, spurred in part by the death of Moritz Erhardt, an intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch who died after working three nights in a row. Goldman instated the Saturdays-off policy, and said that it would set the expectation that junior bankers work 70-75 hours a week. So why are junior bankers still making the same old complaints?

When grappling with the problem back in 2014, David Solomon—the bank’s current CEO and then co-head of its investment banking division—said Goldman would carefully monitor young staffers’ working hours to make sure they didn’t creep back up. “Encouraging doesn’t work,” he told the Washington Post. “If you don’t have a whole system of expectations, processes, accountability and metrics—if you don’t have an infrastructure to support cultural change—you won’t be successful.”

Putting Goldman’s policies into practice

Given that junior bankers at Goldman are still complaining about their brutal hours, it seems the bank still has a ways to go in setting up the right infrastructure. To Solomon’s point, it isn’t easy to change course on overworking if it’s established as a part of a company’s culture. Official policy may be that people don’t work nights and weekends, but if emails are still flying after-hours and bosses are sending requests for spreadsheets during weekend brunches, workers are going to interpret expectations accordingly.

Indeed, the analysts’ deck suggests that when it comes to Saturdays off, the problem is that Goldman’s policy—which requires junior bankers to get special approval for an “exception” from a manager in order to work on a Saturday—isn’t respected in practice. “Often times, junior people are asked to do ‘quick’ work without an exception and it is incredibly hard to push back,” the deck explains. It’s no surprise lower-level staffers have a hard time saying no to the higher-ups they’re trying to impress.

To be sure, even exhausted junior bankers are in a highly privileged position; they’re paid well for their labor, and stand to rake in ever-larger salaries and bonuses as they advance through the ranks. But burnout can have quite serious effects on their mental and physical health, as highlighted by a 2015 New York Times article on the deaths of young investment bankers. And many people, regardless of their industry, may see their own experiences with overwork reflected in the stories of the young bankers.

Goldman says it’s already responding to the issues raised by junior bankers. “We recognize that our people are very busy, because business is strong and volumes are at historic levels,” the investment bank said in an official statement. “A year into COVID, people are understandably quite stretched, and that’s why we are listening to their concerns and taking multiple steps to address them.” But the bank’s recent history is a reminder of just how easy it is to backslide into a world of sleep deprivation and rattled nerves—and of just how much effort it takes to put a real end to overwork.