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Moritz Erhardt: Can Working Too Hard Kill You?

An intern with Bank of America's investment banking arm is reported to have died of a seizure after working 21-hour-days for three days in a row in order to impress his boss.

Moritz Erhardt (21), from Germany, was nearing the end of a highly-paid seven-week internship with Bank of America Merill Lynch (BAML) when he was found dead in the shower of the student-accommodation where he was staying. Reports quickly spread over the internet that he had been working extremely long days prior to his death, igniting a debate over whether interns are put under excessive pressure as they seek to secure a permanent job.

It is too early to establish whether Moritz's death was in any way related to his internship. However, this incident does highlight a worrying aspect of business culture within the financial services industry, affecting not just interns but all employees: the way that the industry equates hours spent in the office with employee value. This counter-productive culture fails to acknowledge the negative impact of very long hours on productivity, let alone on personal well-being.

"One of the best interns at BAML — three all-nighters, didn't turn up, colleagues went to find him," reads a post in response to Moritz's death on wallstreetoasis.com. But while this post indicates concern about the long hours Moritz had been working, it also seems to imply that being "one of the best interns" at BAML is closely related to being willing to do three "all-nighters" in a row.

The long hours worked by investment bankers, particularly interns and junior bankers, are well-known. Sometimes these long hours may be justified by necessity, but as many of those who have worked in the industry will attest, the combination of remuneration packages weighted heavily towards performance-related bonuses and a highly competitive atmosphere make it hard to break the culture of long hours even when further work is of little benefit.

Sure, you may not be achieving much by midnight, but do you really want to be one of the first in the team to leave your desk? If you're always the one who leaves first will your boss question your commitment when it comes to calculating your annual bonus or deciding whether to take you onto a regular contract?

In an industry containing large numbers of similarly intelligent and well-educated professionals, it is unsurprising that working hours have been stretched by those trying to get ahead. For each employee it will be rational to work longer to stand out, even though none actually succeed in their aim as a result. Let's call it Banker's Dilemma.

But it is in the interests of the company to prevent this outcome. A wealth of evidence suggests that sleep deprivation not only raises stress but lowers cognitive ability, creating the perfect cocktail for poor business decisions. As a result, the company will likely be less successful if it does not intervene to prevent a long hours culture.

For several years now the world's economy has been in turmoil, partially thanks to poor and overly risky decision-making by employees within the financial services industry. It therefore seems plausible that we have all been victims of the business culture that saw Moritz Erhardt staying at his desk until dawn each morning.

It is in the interests of investment banks to bring working hours under control themselves, and they already have the mechanism at hand to do so. Banks should continue to relate bonuses to high performance, but should also reduce them in relation to the number of hours an employee has spent in the office outside the normal working day. Everyone would be better off a result.

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