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Editor’s take: Long hours are here to stay

The recent death of Matthew Courtney, an associate lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, was untimely and tragic. But it’s unlikely to do anything to assuage the long hours worked by junior staff in the City.

Courtney, who fell from a stairwell on the top floor of the Tate Modern after allegedly working months of 16-hour days, has become the tragic poster boy of the anti-long hours movement.

His unexplained but apparently unsuspicious death raises questions about the pressures imposed by all-consuming, highly pressurised jobs. However, as long as graduates stampede in the direction of legal and banking jobs after leaving university, high-pressure employers will have little incentive to change.

With thousands of applicants per vacancy, banks and law firms work junior staff hard because they can. Anyone applying does so in the knowledge that the going will be tough. Does this stop them putting themselves forward? Certainly not.

If anything, as awareness of working conditions for junior staff in the City has spread, so has the appetite to work there. Last year’s study by High Fliers, a student research company, found that 11.1% of students at the UK’s top universities aspired to work in investment banking, higher than at any time in the previous decade.

Were these students sending in their CVs with a view to eroding their social lives and damaging their health? No. They were applying because they wanted the prestige of working in a world-leading financial centre, perhaps because they didn’t know what else to do, and most importantly because they wanted to get rich. Publicity surrounding long working hours has been eclipsed by that surrounding huge City pay packages. A graduate trainee is no millionaire, but he or she will earn around 40k, compared to the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ UK average of 23.4k.

But is it worth it? Polly Courtney [no relation to Matthew], a former analyst at a US bulge-bracket bank turned novelist, describes seeing a colleague on the analyst programme fainting with exhaustion after he’d worked 48 hours straight. “You’re treated as a disposable resource,” she says.

This can’t be good for banks – surely? A study last year by the Centre for Economic Performance found that firms offering work-life balance policies tend to be better managed and, in turn, more productive. And then there’s the cost of high staff turnover to think about – two years into her bank’s analyst programme more than 50% of trainees had decided to quit, according to Courtney. Each trainee costs a bank an average of around 3k to recruit, according to the head of graduate recruitment at one firm, plus the cost of training.

This would be bad for banks, were it not for the fact that they’re endowed with a constant flow of replacements each July. The 3k recruitment cost is nothing compared with the six-figure sums paid to staff higher up the hierarchy. And with cost ratios rising, which bank is going to turn down an endlessly renewable source of cheap labour?

Deaths such as Courtney’s will only make a difference if they discourage juniors from applying to work for employers with a reputation for long hours. Last month’s survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters suggests banks will increase hiring again this year, and expect to find places harder to fill. As a result, students are in a relatively strong position to call the shots on lifestyle issues. Driven by the dream of large bonuses, they’re unlikely to do so.

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