Bankers work hard. In some cases, they can seemingly work themselves to death. And as we’ve noted before, a few years of 80 hour weeks in a financial services career can be detrimental to both your physical and mental health.
Now, Alexandra Michel, an ex-Goldman Sachs banker turned University of Pennsylvania academic who undertook a notorious 12 year study into the deleterious effects of banking on the body, has released results to a follow-up study looking at what happens when bankers quit. As reported in the Financial Times at the weekend, Michel’s new paper shows that bankers’ workaholic traits endure: even after they leave banking, they continue working unnecessarily hard. Worse, they transmit their overwork ethic to new colleagues.
Michel is nothing if not thorough. For her latest paper* she tracked four associate-level groups of M&A/capital markets bankers, undertook 700 hours of interviews with 200 informants and conducted 136 additional interviews lasting 30 to 45 minutes. In confirmation of her previous findings, Michel established that bankers work crazily hard not because they’re made to but because they choose to as a result of subtle social conditioning – everyone works hard in a bank and overwork becomes contextual. Bankers think they’re choosing to overwork autonomously, but actually they’ve been
brainwashed socialized into it.
So what happens when you get out of banking? The comments Michel gathered from ex-bankers who are now doing something supposedly more relaxing are telling…
1. The overwork ethic proves inescapable
“My life is like groundhog day,” said one ex-banker turned consultant. “I now have a new job, but I still work in the same way as I did in banking. I just can’t bring myself to turn the computer off before midnight. I am just used to that kind of work ethic.”
2. The skewed perception of a ‘normal’ working day persists
“I have made a comfortable life for myself here. There is hardly a day when I have to be in the office later than 11PM,” declared one former Wall Street banker who moved to Arizona to work in private equity.
3. Even when you thinking you’re working less, you’re still working far too much
“I did leave banking partly to have a better life and to see more of my family,” said another banking escapee. “But my standards of what constitutes normal had been so distorted from banking that what I thought was now a normal life still turned out to be unsustainable in the long run.”
4. People who know you used to be a banker will admire you for working hard (and expect you to do so)
“I started to work hard when I was at the bank partly because others shamed me into it. When someone left before midnight, you’d hear comments like: ‘half a day today?’ The more you worked, the more of a hero you were,” one ex-banker told Michel. “But I found that this is true everywhere. Even the people I meet randomly at the gym, they cannot appreciate my skills. It doesn’t mean anything to them that I worked on deal X. But they do understand and have awe for hard work.”
5. Having escaped banking to do something more soulful, it becomes harder to admit that you’re killing yourself still
“I did not feel well even when I started my new job. I did not know what was wrong with me, I had body pain that kept moving around, my hips, neck, wrists, knees, everything was painful. I could not think right. It took me hours to get the work done that I could previously do in a few minutes. And I now know that I was depressed,” one ex-banker told Michel. “But at the time I didn’t really notice any of this, as strange as it may sound. I now believe that I partly repressed this because I felt that I had no reasons to feel this way. Everything in my life, all the outer circumstances seemed perfect. I had landed the job of my dreams. We had a gorgeous house. I could work from home a few days a week….”
6. The dream of ‘working from home’ can actually be a nightmare
“Since most of us work from home, you can’t really tell how long it would take someone else to get this done,” said one ex-banker. “I did notice that I work a lot and that I am constantly exhausted and depressed, but I mean who isn’t?”
Overwork is contagious
Interestingly, Michel found that bankers transmitted their overwork ethic to others in their new organisations. They tended to implement a banking style ‘results-oriented’ culture where people could work at their own pace as long as results were delivered. In theory, this should have led to better work life balance. In reality, it led to everyone in the new organisation over-working as they competed to achieve the best outcomes.
*Participation and self-entrapment: A twelve-year ethnography of Wall Street participation practices’ diffusion and evolving consequences