Two junior bankers have died this year. Yesterday, the New York Times told the tragic stories of Sarvshreshth Gupta and Thomas J. Hughes. Both were in their 20s. Both worked in investment banking divisions (IBD) at Goldman Sachs and Moelis & Co. respectively. Their deaths have reopened the outcry about excessive work in investment banking that was raised by the death of Moritz Erhardt, an IBD intern at Bank of America, in summer 2013.
The parallels between Gupta and Erhardt are especially stark. Gupta took his own life and Erhardt died of an epileptic seizure possibly linked to exhaustion, but events preceding the passing of each man sound unerringly familiar. Neither had slept for at least 48 hours. There was parental concern about the sons’ excoriating schedules – Erhardt emailed his mother at 5am after working through the night and Gupta called his father at midnight to say that he he had not slept for two days and needed to complete a client presentation for the following morning. Gupta was working 100 hours a week. Erhardt was working 21-hour days. Seven hours after calling his father, Gupta was found dead in the car park. 14 hours after emailing his mother, Erhardt was found dead in the shower.
“Whenever this happens. it’s deeply saddening and tragic,” says Alexandra Michel, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who’s in the process of a 13 year study into working conditions in investment banks. “Banks have a deeply rooted culture of overwork created by overlapping systems,” she observes. “You won’t change this simply by sending memoranda saying they can’t work weekends.”
Michel is referring to banks’ attempts to to curtail juniors’ working hours with ‘protected weekends‘. Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan and Barclays all have policies in place to ensure that juniors get some weekend time off. Barclays has also implemented a framework encouraging juniors to report senior bankers who set inappropriate work deadlines. The new policies had been heralded as a qualified success – until now.
A recent study by researchers at the Maastricht School of Business and Economics and Maastricht University found Dutch male workers engage in ‘conspicuous work’ in pursuit of status just as consumers engage in conspicuous consumption. Michel identifies this as the problem in investment banks: “Everyone watches how much everyone else works. It’s a source of competition and you get a culture where everyone wants to work harder than everyone else.”
Gupta had become known as a ‘go-to’ analyst at Goldman Sachs. “His proficiency and work ethic appear to have led to him to take on a large workload,” says the New York Times. As Goldman’s TMT team became busier, it seems that Gupta took up the slack. Privately, however, he had complained to his father that the job involved “too much work and too little time.” Several months previously, he tended and then retracted his resignation for this very reason.
Seasoned bankers suggest that having a reputation as a competent ‘go-to’ analyst is no bad thing – as long as you also have the gumption to push back when the work becomes excessive. “You have to protect yourself because superiors will keep giving you work,” says Epicurean Dealmaker, the investment banking blogger.
Mark Hatz, a former Goldman Sachs and Perella Weinberg associate who now helps people into his old industry, says the best IBD teams discourage overworking.”I was advised to refuse work sometimes,” he tells us. “These banks are big places – they have wide resources and big teams. It’s never an issue for them to find someone else to take something on. If you’re working until 3am and a staffer offers you something else with a coming deadline, you need to speak up – they will respect you for it.”
Mae Busch, a former COO at Morgan Stanley Europe, says junior bankers need to be given ‘permission’ to discuss their workloads. Banks set out to hire over-achievers, says Busch: “They don’t put limits on themselves and the system doesn’t put limits on them either.” Junior staff need to set boundaries and they can do so without seeming to lack to competence. Instead of saying, “I just can’t take anything else on,” Busch advises new analysts to say, “I’d love to take that on too, but I’ve got three other projects. How would you like me to prioritize this because it won’t be possible to do them all.”
How much is too much? A popular discussion on Quora suggests that 80 hour weeks are the most that can be sustained over a long period. Measured in terms of assignments, Hatz suggests that anything more than three deals at one time is a serious problem – and that juniors should really be limited to working on no more than two simultaneously. “You get to the point where you can’t do good work because you have too much to do.”
It’s this relationship between overwork and poor quality work that banks need to stress if they’re to cure the long hours epidemic, says Michel. Overwork needs to become a source of stigma, a sign that you’re producing inferior goods. “Research shows that overwork impairs your judgement and creativity. When junior bankers work too much, we see that they keep producing the same pitches and that they don’t recognize the crucial differences between deals,” she tells us. She suggests banks implement ‘dashboards’ that monitor how much work juniors are doing and publicly call them out when their working hours become excessive. Instead of being a source of validation, Michel says overwork needs to become a source of ignominy: “Junior bankers who overwork need to be publicly shamed.” In a hyper-competitive status-driven culture, she says this is the only way to rid banking of its 100 hour weeks.