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Junior bankers’ working conditions are as bad as ever. I should know

Junior bankers

There'll be no time for fun.

Investment banking is not an easy career choice. As someone who’s spent the past few years working as an analyst in a US investment bank, I can testify to this based upon harsh personal experience. Things still need to change.

The hours worked by junior bankers were thrown into sharp perspective in summer 2013. Then, Moritz Erhardt – a Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern – died from an epileptic seizure following a reported 72 hours of continuous work.

Erhardt’s death gave the public a glimpse into the harsh working conditions faced by many of those students who have chosen a career in the supposedly glamorous world of investment banking. There was sympathy, but I can’t help but thinking it would have been greater for a less maligned profession. What if a junior doctor had died after three nights of no sleep?

What few appreciate is that the cases of young financiers literally being worked to the point of death are neither uncommon nor a result of freak individual medical conditions. They are the inevitable consequence of a pervasive culture that encourages young bankers to push themselves to the edge again and again. All in an attempt to prove themselves, gain plaudits from their managers and compete for top spot come review season.

In my experience, it is not unusual for analysts to be seen sleeping, or crying in the toilets; breakdowns and instances of burnout are also regular occurrences.

Since Erhardt’s death, investment banks have rolled out numerous programmes aimed at ensuring their youngest workers attain a better ‘work-life balance’. Goldman Sachs prohibited analysts from working on Saturdays, J.P. Morgan introduced a ‘protected weekend’ once a month. Citigroup and others have implemented similar variations on the theme.

The corporate spin machine has universally heralded these as great successes, but if you speak to the current crop of investment banking analysts their experiences paint a contrasting picture. At Goldman, the Saturday work prohibition equates to longer hours on weekdays and working Sundays instead. J.P. Morgan’s scheme has resulted in an ‘on call’ rota system where analysts can be called upon at short notice to cover for a colleague who has availed of a ‘protected weekend’.

Panels of junior employees have been set up in a number of banks to monitor work-life balance, however it would seem these are little more than outlets for employees to ‘have their say’ no one actually seems to be listening, there is a crucial difference. It is difficult to see how a renewed public focus on work-life balance is reconcilable with some US banks’ privately targeted working week of 75-80 hours.

This contrast between external perception and internal reality became apparent once more this summer when some J.P. Morgan investment banking staffers sent their junior employees an internal memo on holiday policy. The note starkly reminded employees that: no staffing cover will be provided for them on live deals while they are on vacation, laptops are expected to be with employees at all times in case needed for remote connection and that work emails must be checked and responded to every day. The correspondence ended with a recommendation not to set up an automatic ‘out-of-office’ email.

It is easy to draw the inference that you are not expected to have a break from work at an investment bank, you are merely working from the beach in a more temperate climate.

The only way to improve the working environment for those 20-somethings starting their careers in the City is to engineer a change of culture among senior bankers and middle managers. The evidence of that sea change is not yet apparent.

In too many firms long hours, sacrificing one’s health and family life are still seen as a ‘rite of passage’. Junior employees are treated as expendable commodities, not future leaders of their respective firms. These macho attitudes are the same short-term and childish behaviours that helped cause the financial crisis in the first place. It is alarming to see them still present in our ‘newly reformed’ financial institutions.

Jim Keen is the pseudonym of a third year analyst at a leading investment bank.

Photo Credit: Marvin Lee 

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