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All-nighters and weekend work have for decades been seen as a rite of passage for young City bankers. But the death of a Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern last summer, which according to a coroner may have been triggered by long working hours, has acted as a catalyst for a reassessment of this mentality.
“Interns are often doing things that are entirely pointless, such as producing long reports until 3am in the night that no one reads,” one investment banking executive said.
Bankers say working conditions for young staff have become tougher in recent years as investment banks – suffering from lower profits – have loaded more work on to junior staff.
The high workload is illustrated by a poll of more than 550 Financial Times readers working in the financial services sector, aged between 18 and 25. It showed that just over half were working more than 60 hours a week. Nearly one in seven respondents said they were working 90 hours a week or more.
Mirroring the tone from the top, just over half of the young employees said the working culture needed to change. But only about 18 per cent of those polled said they had seen any attempts.
“There are occasional token comments and emails mentioned, particularly during times of the year when the workload is OK. But when push comes to shove during busy season, it won’t change,” said one UK-based financial services employee.
Chris Roebuck, visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School London, who has held senior human resource positions at banks, believes that working conditions can be improved by teaching leaders how to manage teams efficiently.
So how are the young professionals coping with the long hours? Caffeine, alcohol and working out are the most commonly mentioned strategies. Taking naps in the bathroom and suicidal thoughts get a few mentions, as do drugs.
“A cocktail of zero social life, coffee, propranolol (helps with stress and panic attacks) and modafinil (keeps you up all night),” wrote one UK-based banking employee. Another noted that the “emotional stress” had been reduced since “splitting from my partner”.
The long hours culture does not seem to be putting students off going into banking, however. Research published this week by High Fliers, which monitors graduate recruitment, found investment banking remains a popular career choice among top graduates. One in eight of those graduating from top universities wanted to go into the sector – a return to pre-recession levels.
Kristen Fitzpatrick of the careers office at Harvard Business School said: “The press banks have had over the past two years has been tough to counteract . . . but they’re taking back more control of the message.”
But some are dissuaded. Varun Bhanot, a 23-year-old LSE graduate who worked at UBS in New York for a year as a US Treasuries analyst, was put off banking by the long hours. “I thought the lifestyle was unsustainable,” she said. Among his peers who stayed in finance, he perceives a great deal of dissatisfaction. “I haven’t come across a single one who enjoys what they do.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Schäfer and Camilla Hall in New York