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Intern's work death: Is it worth it?

Aug 22 2013 10:51 Reuters
Moritz Erhardt was expected to graduate next year

Moritz Erhardt was expected to graduate next year from the WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Vallendar, Germany. (Facebook)

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London - The death of an intern working at the London offices of Bank of America Merrill Lynch has prompted calls for city firms to take more responsibility for the ambitious graduates who push themselves to the limit to secure jobs at the world's top banks.

Attracted to the glass towers of finance in London, New York and Singapore by the prospect of securing a full-time job and hefty wage, future "masters of the universe" often face 20-hour days in some of the most adrenaline-soaked offices on earth.

Weekends at work and meals in the office are par for the course, with anecdotal reports of the "magic roundabout" where interns get a taxi home after dawn and leave it waiting while they have a quick shower and then return to work.

But serious concerns about interns working long hours and even through the night were raised on Wednesday after the death of Moritz Erhardt, 21, who was found dead late last week at his London accommodation towards the end of a seven-week internship.

The German intern allegedly worked for 72 hours without sleep in Bank of America's investment banking division. The cause of his death was unknown pending post-mortem tests.

A Bank of America spokesperson said the bank was waiting for the facts about Erhardt's death before deciding whether to review its internship programme.

Some politicians and an intern campaign group condemned the workload on interns dubbed "slavery in the city" by one British newspaper, calling on the banks to take measures to ensure their staff were not worked to exhaustion.

"Exploitation of youth is unacceptable," tweeted European Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor.

Ben Lyons, co-founder of Intern Aware that campaigns for fair, paid internships, criticised the long hours at investment banks, saying HR professionals, particularly those in the City, needed to ensure young people were cared for.

But interns doubted it would be possible to change the culture, saying they were never explicitly told to work such long hours but imposed this on themselves in their desperation for a job.

"People push themselves because they want an offer with the bank and the chance of a great career and great money," said one former intern from a major US bank who secured a job after the summer. "This is a golden path."

Golden wages

The pressure to succeed can take its toll on some interns who have about eight weeks over the summer to prove themselves and dare not leave the office before their superiors.

Working around the clock was seen as part of the job, which can be brutal for years with young bankers swapping stories about trying to get a weekend off a month, working three days without sleep and negotiating to be freed up for their weddings.

But while some burn out and quit the industry, the financial rewards are a major incentive, with new recruits at investment banks starting on a salary of about £50 000 (R804 000) which is about 20% higher than other corporate graduates.

"There's the sense of face time and even if you don't have any urgent work you are required to stay late. The culture feeds itself," said an intern from Merrill Lynch who secured a job but quit after a year with work-related repetitive strain injury.

"It takes you about a year to 18 months to realise that it just isn't worth it. You need to have a life," said the intern who is now a project manager in the fashion industry.

A former intern at HSBC in London, who no longer works at the bank or in the industry, said interns got the worst projects, spending days ploughing through data without argument.

"If you can follow instructions then they will like you and that often means staying very, very late doing ridiculous things. It's partly a culture of intern trying to impress," said the former intern.

In New York, a former investment banking intern at Goldman Sachs Group who declined to be identified said he worked an average of 18 hours a day, seven days a week without a single day off during the summer of 2012.

He remembered one particular week in which he pulled three consecutive all-nighters and left the office only to change clothes, shower and sleep once for two hours in his own bed.

"I was basically taking power naps at my desk and in bathroom stalls" the rest of the time, the former intern said.

Goldman Sachs spokesperson Leslie Shribman declined to comment.

Many interns tolerated the long hours because, in addition to the high pay, their bosses made them feel like they were valued contributors to a team and that their work was important to senior executives, said Jeanne Branthover, managing partner at executive search firm Boyden in New York.

"It's almost like they're a junkie. They are into it," Branthover said.

With interns unlikely to rebel against working "all-nighters", Professor Andre Spicer from London's Cass Business School said the banks themselves needed to impose limits and question just how productive and healthy long hours are.

"If large firms hope to be sustainable and attractive to employees, they need to tackle the extreme hours culture," Spicer said in a statement.

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