21 Aug 2013

Death of a City intern: overstressed and overworked?

The death of a young intern at banking firm Merrill Lynch is blamed on overwork. But why is the culture of long hours so endemic? Is it ambition – or pressure from the top?

Lower Manhattan (getty)

He was just 21 years old, a business studies student in London for the summer, working a temporary internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. When Moritz Erhardt was found dead, rumours swirled that he had suffered a fit after working until 6am three days in a row.

The Bank of America wouldn’t comment on the reports, saying the firm had not been made aware of the cause of Mr Erhardt’s death. Yet the tragedy has shone a spotlight on the culture of insanely long hours at some of the City’s biggest firms – where the office lights burn late from London to Wall Street.

According to his blog, Mr Erkhardt had a “highly competitive and ambitious nature”, and could have expected a salary of up to £2,700 a month for his work as an intern.

In a statement, BAML said they were deeply shocked and saddened by his death, describing the young German as “a hugely diligent intern at our company, with a promising future”.

The charity Intern Aware hit out against what it described as a 100-hour a week culture at investment banks; co-founder Ben Lyons told the FT things needed to change, to one where “employees are assessed not on the total number of hours they are able to grind out, but on the quality of work they are able to produce.”

I look in their eyes and they’re sinking into the back of their heads. But they’re not going to complain. Manager, in Business Week magazine.

The circumstances of Mr Erhardt’s death are unclear, but there have been many examples of highly stressed employees whose working lives have proved too much.

Friends of a San Diego lawyer who died from a heart attack aged just 32 said she had regularly been working 100 hour weeks and was often asked to cut short her holidays to rush back to work.

In 2007 a lawyer fell to his death from London’s Tate Modern gallery, after complaining of stress and being overworked. Others have simply given up, rejected the notion of this modern-day indentured slavery.

But where did this cult of long hours, of what used to be known as “presenteeism”, grow so widespread? The answer could lie in Silicon valley, where those young, nerdy, uber-tech geeks habitually stayed up all night, hunched over computers, obsessed by code.

Churn ’em and burn ’em

Social futurist Sara Robinson writes of that early “churn ’em and burn ’em” culture, of the T-shirts handed out by Apple’s Steve Jobs which proclaimed “working 90 hours a week, and proud of it.”

She reports how this “sci-tech personality” was championed nationwide by management guru Tom Peters: live to work, not work to live. The old 40 hour week was boring and outdated, “for losers and slackers”.

Instead, the office has become everything. “If the boss asks you to work 50 hours, you work 55. If she asks for 60, you give up weeknights and Saturdays and work 65 … this is what work looks like now.”

Officially, of course, executives insist that anyone who asks if they have to work insane hours to get ahead is simply wrong. Microsoft’s former head of Windows, Steven Sinofsky, wrote on his blog for graduates seeking work with the company that overwork did not make business sense.

“Anyone who tells you how cool it is to pull all-nighters on commercial software or anyone who says “I live at the office”, and really means it, is really someone I would not want checking code into my project.”

And in 2011, the law firm SJ Berwin admitted it had “got it wrong”, after a student intern was asked to work until five o’clock in the morning, insisting that most interns “jump at the chance” to work on important contracts.

Work more, sleep less

However, numerous studies have shown that the more hours employees work, the less effective they are. Sleep deprivation means loss of concentration, fatigue leads to mistakes. Mental exhaustion means depression, sickness, burnout.

Neuroscientist Russell Foster has found that sleep and mental illness are physically linked: genes that have been shown to be important in the generation of sleep, when muted, predispose individuals to mental-health problems.

The pressure on managers, however, has intensified with the economic downturn. One middle-ranking executive told Business Week magazine he was forced to load more work onto his staff, who complied in fear for their jobs.

“I find myself not wanting to go into work because I’m going to have to push people to do more, and I look in their eyes and they’re sinking into the back of their heads … But they’re not going to complain”, he confessed.

Of course, the 40 hour week was a benefit hard-won by trade unions which fought against the exploitation of poorly paid workers in the name of corporate greed. Today, it is the educated, highly salaried class that is chained to the workplace, leaving the poorly paid struggling with piece work and part time hours.

This is the era of the “superjob”, as the Wall Street Journal termed it: loading more and more responsibilities onto fewer, highly stressed staff, where failure to cope is not even an option when the next round of redundancies is just around the corner.

The backlash against overwork is increasingly powered by women, especially those with children, who are proving more likely than men to leave jobs with excessive hours. Macho it may be, family friendly it certainly isn’t.

Sheila Burke, from Harvard’s Kennedy School, saw herself as a model of working motherhood when she was chief of staff for Senate leader Bob Dole, racing home from work for an hour to see her children, then back to the office until the small hours.

Working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is a badge of honour. Arianna Huffington

At one point she was commuting to her job at Harvard from Washington DC, getting up impossibly early for the daily intercity flight. She talked about the “daily sense of guilt” about not spending enough time at home or in the office.

“But at the same time, you just have to get up and do what you have to do, even though it’s hard”. Untimately, even she found that it was not sustainable.

There is, however, an alternative: the Huffington Post founder, Arianna Huffington, has decided to call time. Collapsing at her desk through exhaustion, breaking her cheekbone, proved a revelation. The current model of success, she said, had become one “where we drive ourselves into the ground, and in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is a badge of honour.” But why?

Instead, she created what she calls the “third metric“, which makes time and space for essentials like family, and sleep. “If they are working 24/7, then they can’t be any good. Because nobody can be any good working 24/7”, she said.

In the 21st century, it seems, the fight against corporate pressure which treats employees as disposable productivity machines is just as relevant now as it was in the days of the industrial revolution.