Is it possible to literally work yourself to death ?
One of the world's largest banks has announced a review of the long-hours culture faced by young interns after the death of a 21-year-old German intern who colleagues said had worked for three nights in a row before he died last week.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch issued a statement Friday expressing dismay at the death of Moritz Erhardt, who was working in Merrill Lynch's investment banking division, and announced a wide-ranging examination of working practices with a special focus on junior members of staff.
In the statement, the financial giant said: "We are deeply shocked and saddened by the news of Moritz Erhardt's death. Moritz Erhardt was popular amongst his peers and was a highly diligent intern at our company with a bright future."
The bank added that it had commissioned "a formal senior working group to consider the facts as they become known" which would "listen to employees at all levels". Giving more detail about the focus of the review, a bank spokesman said the panel would take in "all aspects of working practices with a particular focus on our junior population". He added: "We're going to look at everything."
Erhardt, from south-west Germany, was found dead in a shower cubicle at his temporary accommodation in east London. The unexpected death of the "dedicated" student sent shockwaves through the world of investment banking as reports of extreme working habits sparked debate about a culture that forces interns into working 100-hour weeks in an attempt to break into the lucrative industry.
One City intern, who wanted to be known only as Alex, told the Guardian that working for more than 100 hours was normal, but said that despite the pressures he and other interns enjoyed the experience.
"On average, I get four hours' sleep about 70% of the time … [but] there are also days with eight hours of sleep," Alex said. "Work-life balance is bad. We all know this going in. I guess that's the deal with most entry level jobs these days." He added that despite the amount of time spent in the office, he "enjoyed it greatly".
Alex said it was not uncommon for interns to leave the office in the small hours in a cab only to have it wait outside their flat while they showered, changed and returned to the office. But he said that the practice, known as "the magic roundabout", was an exercise in comradeship. "It's more like a college all-nighter; everybody has to do it. It is more fun that way."
Abdurahman Moallim, 21, a recent intern at a major multinational bank, said there was an element of one-upmanship involved in working flat-out. "All-nighters are often worn as a badge of honour – it's common for interns to brag in the morning about the long hours they've worked the night before. Everybody wants to show they have what it takes to succeed in an industry which demands stamina."
The boozy lunches that were a hallmark of City life before deregulation in the 1980s are long gone. Even a decade ago there was fierce competition to prove worth through working long hours.
Polly Courtney, author of Golden Handcuffs and an intern at Merrill Lynch in 2001 before its merger with Bank of America, agreed that the atmosphere for interns had got worse as the competition for jobs had increased. "During our internship, all-nighters were like a right of passage. They were discussed among us in the Merrill Lynch canteen each night with an outward sense of loathing, but tinged with pride. You weren't seen as a 'proper' analyst until you'd worked through the night," she said. "Competition was intense; it felt like every man for himself. We all desperately wanted to feel valued and to be rewarded with the salary and prestige of a job at the end of it."
Past or present City interns all agreed that the material rewards on offer were a major motivating factor. Some spoke of access to on-site rooftop infinity swimming pools and top of the range company cars. Others mentioned "cocktail nights in the Tower of London" and dinners at high-end French restaurants.
Alex was more blunt: "Truth be told, most of us are in it for financial security. Many leave banking after three to five years, not because they are 'worn out', but because now they have financial security to start their own business or go on to advocate for a cause they are passionate about or buy a small cottage in the West Country for the rest of their lives."
The exact circumstances surrounding Erhardt's death have yet to be officially determined. The coroner's court at Poplar told the Guardian that no decision had yet been taken on whether an inquest would go ahead.
A toxicology report as part of the autopsy, conducted by consultant forensic pathologist Peter Vanezis, had yet to be filed.
But, according to his biography on the social media platform Seelio, Erhardt had spoken about his "highly competitive and ambitious nature" and shown all the outward signs of wanting to be a high achiever and driving himself to that end.
A fellow intern at the bank described him as a "superstar", adding: "He worked very hard and was very focused. We typically work 15 hours a day or more and you would not find a harder worker than him."
'He was so tired he couldn't talk'
A mother has said she was worried sick when her son interned for the Goldman Sachs investment bank in London in 2009.
The woman, who did not want to be named so as not to reveal her son's identity, said he took the internship that summer.
"He had to work from 7.30am until 4.30am or 5am. Then he came home from the office and slept for about three hours. After that he had a shower and went back to the office in the City.
"I couldn't sleep during the whole summer of 2009. I always telephoned him at 12 o'clock at night then at 2 o'clock and told him: 'Go home, why can't you go home?' And my son would say: 'I can't Mum, this must be done by tomorrow morning.'
"This schedule continued every day during the 10 weeks of the internship. He was so tired the whole time that he could hardly articulate his words."
The mother said her son, interning in London away from his home, reported that he began suffering from heart trouble and chest pains because of the mounting stress.
She said he spent the whole summer disoriented from lack of sleep.
"His thoughts were wandering and he could not think clearly any more. He spent the whole summer in a kind of delirium state."
Eventually, she said, her son was forced to quit the investment bank. "He couldn't manage it."
She added: "I don't understand how it is possible in a European country, where it is forbidden to use slaves, for this to happen."
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