Does Intern's Death Show We Need to Take a Break?
Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old nearing the end of his summer internship in the investment banking division of Bank of America Corp. in London, was found unconscious in his student residential facility on Aug. 15. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and police are not treating the event as suspicious.
That's about all we know of Erhardt's death.
Then there are the rumors: that he pulled eight "all-nighters" at the office in two weeks; that he worked until 6 a.m. each of the three days before he died; that he suffered from epilepsy, which can be exacerbated by exhaustion.
We need to wait until more details emerge about Erhardt’s physical and emotional state to cast blame -- and to even determine whether there’s blame to be cast. The correlation-causation traps are too many; the facts too few. But we need not wait to examine the culture in which this young man and his peers were apparently living. The outcry (“Slavery in the City,” declared the U.K.'s Independent) has been so swift because the problem of overwork is a known one.
So it is probably good news that Bank of America announced on Aug. 23 that it will convene "a formal senior working group" to review what happened and to look at workplace practices, especially among the young, even if it may hint of public-relations damage control. It would be even better news if other banks followed suit, as well as powerhouse law and private equity firms. Yes, these employees generally have a good idea what they're signing up for; and, yes, they get paid to work hard. That’s not enough: There are broader cultural issues at play here, ones that particularly implicate banking culture, intern culture and youth culture writ large.
A certain mentality makes banking particularly vulnerable. As New York Magazine's Kevin Roose explains, client demands and a yearning for career advancement certainly contribute to the arduous routine, but there’s more to it: "Like older frat members running a pledge process, senior bankers remembered being mistreated and overworked as young analysts and viewed it as a galvanizing experience that confers special status, and that should be passed on to the next generation."
This leads to some degree of bonding through shared misery. But it also puts a self-perpetuating cycle into motion: Cut the “be overworked and then cause overwork” practice anywhere along the loop, and the phenomenon could begin to fade.
Then there are the interns. If anything, this incident has brought to light the other half of the recent intern debate. We've heard much about young workers not getting paid enough (or at all). Now we're seeing youths who are getting paid perfectly reasonably but to do too much work. In both instances, the root of the problem is often that these men and women are so intent on gaining good recommendations or full-time jobs that they're unlikely to speak up if something seems unfair or overwhelming. The whole nature of what an internship entails -- and what the ideal balance of education and productivity is in various corporate settings -- is overdue for a revision.
A tendency to overwork and a hesitancy to acknowledge when you’ve become overrun does not only afflict bankers or interns or people who wear suits every day to the office. And we’re particularly vulnerable to this kind of behavior when we’re young. We’re new to and trying to get ahead in the workplace. For many of us, we no longer have parents at home to worry when it’s the middle of the night and the light is still on. But we don’t yet have families to come home to, the very thought of whom motivates us to speak up and get out the door. We’ve accumulated bad habits in college -- becoming all too familiar with the kind of all-nighter in which you could fall asleep shortly after hitting the send button on the e-mail with the paper attached, not the kind in which you showered and went back to the office. We too often think we’re invincible.
Archie Bland wrote of what he imagined to be Erhardt’s work ethic in the Independent: “Everything about Moritz Erhardt's short life suggests that he would have done his job extraordinarily well. ‘He was the superstar,’ one of his fellow interns said. ‘He worked very hard and was very focused … he was tipped for greatness.’... When I read that informal eulogy, I thought: he could have given himself a break. Everyone was already impressed.”
Learning when to give yourself a break may simply require growing up, which is part of what may make Erhardt’s untimely death so tragic. But when the problems are more endemic to institutions rather than to individuals, greater safeguards may also be required. Margaret Heffernan, writing for CBS MoneyWatch, looked at the issue through another lens: “Missing just one night's sleep is equivalent to being over the alcohol limit, yet corporate culture tends to treat over-workers as if they were heroes, not drunks.”
Research has shown that driving over-tired and driving drunk aren't so different. No one is going to equate operating a motor-vehicle with operating an Excel spreadsheet. However, one imagines that if a young banker wobbled into work tipsy every morning, someone might have a word with him. And if he was coming in tipsy every morning because his superiors were forcing him to drink in excess every night (the fraternity analogy returns) someone might re-think the whole structure of the system.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about making it easier to balance working hard in the professional world with being a parent, and especially a mother. We need to add to that discussion talk about balancing working hard in the professional world while also being a functioning person. Mandatory time off can be required to check for fraudulent behavior among traders; why not to redress fatigue among bankers?
Roose notes, "Perhaps a bank could mandate one day off a week or limit the hours worked in a certain period by bankers (as happens with pilots or doctors). But the real change will have to come from the young workers themselves." We limit hours for pilots and doctors because over-tired pilots and doctors can put lives at risk. We need to ask ourselves whether over-tired bankers can do that, too.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)