Can banking's long-hours culture change?

Hannah Langworth on attempts to ease the working lives of students and graduates in the industry

Following the tragic death of a summer intern at a major investment bank this summer, the working lives of banking interns and analysts have come under intense scrutiny.

Many commentators outside the industry have questioned the wisdom and even morality of a culture that can see students and graduates putting as many as 100 hours in at the office a week, with the unpredictable nature of their work meaning they have little opportunity to plan for the time they do end up having off.

Investment banks have responded by announcing the introduction of measures to address these concerns, mostly consisting of plans to employ more graduates and support staff to spread the workload, and "protected time off" schemes under which employees will be guaranteed to be work-free on particular weekend days or evenings. But how do things look from the inside?

Bringing home the bacon

"Pigs might fly," says a senior banker I spoke to when I ask him whether these steps will change anything. "Remember that the City is like a school playground - it's all about status and it's never going to change. It's a huge international market of talented people from all over the world. You can't make yourself stand out by being clever because everyone's clever, so it's about how much you push."

As well as the competitive workplace culture that bankers face, he also highlights the pressure banks themselves are under that spurs it. "There's only one set of people that banks are answerable to at the end of the day, and that's their shareholders - so senior people are under constant pressure. They have a target to hit and if [the figures] aren't better than last year, someone wants to know why."

So even if measures are officially put in place, the banker I spoke to questions how they could work in practice: "How would you police them? Would anyone take any notice of them in the real world? My suspicion would be no."

A path to suit you

However, he is also at pains to point out that, despite the long hours, there are significant upsides to a busy junior role in the industry. First, there's the high pay. Second, for the right kind of person, an intense working pattern is an integral part of the attraction of the job: "If a deal is live and you're in the thick of it, are you really going to spend a Saturday at home because that's what HR dictates?"

Furthermore, no-one is compelled to take a role that means long and unpredictable hours, and it's important to remember that there are career options in banking that don't make these kinds of demands.

It's mainly those working in mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance who will work evenings and weekends, while those in markets-based jobs, such as trading or research, will work long but very predictable early morning until early evening days, Monday to Friday only, because their work is structured around financial markets' operating hours.

And "in different banks it works differently," my interviewee says. "The bigger and more aggressive the organisation the more a long-hours culture is going to be ingrained. At the majority of banks there's a better balance."

Because of the choices that you have, it's important to consider all your options and choose a path that's going to suit you - "to get a senior job in banking you don't have to go through the training ground of no sleep - there are other ways in," says the banker I spoke to.

A step forward

Educating yourself about the realities of life in banking and thinking strategically about yourself and your career is important, but it's undeniable that banks themselves also have a responsibility to protect the physical and mental health of their staff, particularly junior ones who are least used to operating in a demanding workplace and tend to be required to work the most extreme hours.

So, despite the reservations of my interviewee, the measures now being implemented are encouraging. Some similar moves have worked successfully in strategy consulting, a sector with a similar competitive and high-achieving culture to that of banking. And even if these measures do little more for the moment than provoke debate, that's still a significant step forward in tackling an important issue that's been ignored for too long.