Ostensibly, Bank of America has been exonerated. Firstly, results to a post-mortem, published today, reveal that Moritz Erhardt – the 21 year old German student who died during an internship with Bank of America last summer, did so as a result of epilepsy and not of overwork per se. Secondly, Erhardt’s father has said he bears no anger towards Bank of America for his son’s death – if he blames anyone, Hans-Georg Erhardt told the Observer, it was his son “for not taking care of himself.”
Before senior managers at BAML start feeling too complacent, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that tiredness is one of the key triggers for epilepsy. The Observer also reiterated previously unverified claims that Moritz had worked 72 hours straight. ‘Over a 72-hour period, he got a taxi back from the office to his flat in Bethnal Green, east London, at around 5am each morning. He would then shower briefly before returning to his desk,’ said the paper. Erhardt’s father has his own theory regarding his son’s death: “”The lack of sleep caused a seizure and I think that, first in his room, and then in the shower, he had a seizure and then maybe he drowned under the running water because he was unconscious.”
One thing is clear, however: BAML didn’t compel Moritz Erhardt to go 72 hours straight without sleeping. He chose to do so. To use his father’s words, “Moritz was exploiting himself.”
Alexandra Michel, an assistant professor in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and a former investment banking associate herself, offers some answers answer. In a seminal study of hundreds of young investment bankers over a nine year period, published in 2012, Michel described the mechanisms that prompt young people like Erhardt to work dangerously long hours. The banks featured in Michel’s study were unnamed and it didn’t refer to Bank of America specifically.
The young bankers Michel studied thought they were working stupidly long hours entirely of their own volition. “I could not work for an organization that required me to come at 9am and leave at 5pm. I want to be in control of my schedule,” one associate told her. When she pointed out that he worked a lot more than 40 hours each week, the associate said this was fine because it was, “his choice.”
In reality however, Michel found that banks used so-called “embodied controls” to encourage young bankers to work so hard that their health suffered. Over time, experienced bankers became aware that these controls existed and resisted them, but juniors were unhealthily oblivious to their existence.
The embodied controls identified by Michel included:
– Open plan offices – by placing employees in open offices and a ‘trading floor-like environment’, Michel said banks made it easier for juniors to overhear senior bankers’ conversations. Because junior bankers didn’t know if they were being watched, they behaved as if they were and monitored themselves at all times. In this environment, subtle comments about people being present at their desks can be taken as cues to work harder and longer.
– Creation of an artificial 24/7 environment – by keeping the lights on 24/7 and providing round-the-clock secretarial support, Michel says banks effectively create a parallel universe of insomniacs. ‘They make it possible to work around the clock and isolate you from the outside’s rhythms.”
-Self-surveillance – managers in banking boasted to Michel that they didn’t need to ‘control’ people because the young bankers controlled themselves. All the managers needed to do was to offer feedback on how well the juniors were doing and the juniors would regulate their working hours accordingly.
-Playing upon junior bankers’ intrinsic competitiveness – one manager boasted that the juniors would “compete against themselves.” The bank seemingly encouraged this. Bankers tried to work longer and longer hours in order to beat their own ‘personal bests.’ “People compete against themselves,” said one manager.
The latter two points are the most invidious. By their nature, banks hire ultra-competitive perfectionists. Erhardt reportedly beat 750 people to his internship position. Various studies have shown that self-focused perfectionists are prone to workaholism. When you have a workforce filled with perfectionists eager to compete against not just others but their own personal bests, it doesn’t take much to nudge people into a dangerous cycle of overwork. Banks need to recognize and negate this pathology in their young staff. Instead, they’ve been quietly encouraging it.