Death of a banking intern

Hannah Langworth considers the latest banking scandal

There was widespread shock and sadness this summer when news broke that Moritz Erhardt, a summer intern at a major investment bank, had been found dead.

Medical investigations into the cause of his death are ongoing, but the tragedy has triggered a significant amount of debate around the working lives of junior employees at investment banks.

Out of balance

Erhardt was working very long days, sometimes 15 hours or more. His experience is not unusual; working into the night and sometimes all through it is part of many banking roles.

Working outside a 9am to 5pm framework shouldn't be condemned outright. If you want to excel in any career, flexibility over the hours you work is essential. And the kind of buzz you get from staying up until the sun rises to get a big and complex piece of work done is one of the main attractions for ambitious graduates of a career in high finance. Many of those in banking we speak to at The Gateway work extremely hard but feel they have satisfying and well-balanced working lifestyles.

But as Erhardt's death and the many accounts from other junior finance workers it has prompted have shown, some current working practices in the industry are clearly problematic. The use of performance-enhancing drugs, consecutive "all-nighters", and "face-time" culture should all be condemned.

The causes of the problem

Investment banks usually have high-level working hours policies and safeguards in place. A Bank of America Merrill Lynch statement issued after Erhardt's death stated that it had "convened a formal senior working group to...review all aspects of this tragedy."

But as Finance Interns, an organisation that advises young people on work experience in finance, points out, "superiors who feel "we had to do it, so should they" are still found at the coalface."

Also, the personal qualities typical of students who intern at investment banks can worsen the problem, argues Finance Interns. These students are "eager to please, keen not to disappoint and fiercely ambitious...a potent combination of factors [that] will ensure they never complain."

Possible solutions

Investment banks should ensure their junior employees are working in a responsible way, which is not just in employees' interests but also their own. The departure of high-quality employees because of physical and mental health problems caused by overwork is a very real business problem.

Finance Interns suggests that sanity checks should be imposed more often on unreasonable client demands: they should "respond to them with, "No, tomorrow morning is not possible - tomorrow evening is", and see how it goes," they suggest.

Giving junior employees more autonomy over their working lives could also help. Letting these hardworking, ambitious and well-organised individuals have as great a say as possible over how, when and where they complete their large workloads will increase their morale and their mental health, is more likely to ensure they don't dangerously exceed their personal physical limits, and will help ensure that tasks are completed in the most efficient way.

The government could also be part of the solution. The EU Working Time Directive states that EU workers must work no more than 48 hours per week, that they must be given regular rest breaks and a break of at least 11 hours in any 24, and that excessive night work must be restricted.

Like many City employees, Erhardt would have signed a waiver of these rights on his first day in his role, probably without thinking. Perhaps it's time for this often automatic step to be reconsidered by all parties involved.

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