Can Wall Street Change Its Workaholic Culture?

Can Wall Street Change Its Workaholic Culture?
Outside the New York Stock Exchange
Photograph by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images

One by one, Wall Street’s mighty institutions have started suggesting that they don’t want young employees to destroy themselves by working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Credit Suisse is the latest investment bank to tell its analysts and associates that they should specifically shun the office from 6 p.m. on Friday night until 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, according to an internal memo reported on by Bloomberg News.

Can Wall Street culture, in which workaholism and face-time are deeply embedded, actually change?

Credit Suisse’s move comes after a handful of other banks, including Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch announced they’d like to soften the burden on junior employees. Last summer, a 21-year-old Merrill Lynch intern named Moritz Erhardt who was based in London died of an epileptic seizure while taking a shower. The German exchange student at the University of Michigan Ross business school was working 100-hour weeks at Merrill Lynch, including three all-nighters right before he died. “It may be that Moritz had been working so hard that his fatigue was a trigger for the seizure that killed him,” the London Coroner said at the time. “But that is only a possibility.”

Wall Street’s work environment has always been punishing–some might say miserable–but the stress intensified after the financial crisis, when the industry shrank and jobs became harder to come by. There is also no denying the culture of machismo, which has caused more than its share of other problems at Wall Street firms. ”All-nighters are often worn as a badge of honor—it’s common for interns to brag in the morning about the long hours they’ve worked the night before,” a banking intern named Abdurahman Moallim told the Guardian. “Everybody wants to show they have what it takes to succeed in an industry which demands stamina.”

In an environment in which Goldman Sachs can take its pick of 350 out of 17,000 analyst applicants, the number of hours one of them is willing to work becomes almost the only way to distinguish among them. The process would appear to go like this: At the end of a few years, a bank gathers up all its associates, and the ones who logged the most hours become partners.

Until the culture at the very top of the banks changes, chances are that encouragement to enjoy weekend leisure time will go the way of paternity leave and paid vacation days: These are benefits offered on paper, but everyone below is too scared to actually take them. As one of Erhardt’s fellow Merrill interns put it: He was a “superstar.”

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