Moritz Erhardt has become a tragic symbol. The 21-year-old summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch was found dead on Aug. 15 at his rented London apartment. There is no official report of what happened, but coworkers blogged that Erhardt died after working three consecutive 20-hour days. Whether or not that is true, the tragedy has prompted a worthwhile debate about the work culture in banking and other high-pressure professions.
Erhardt’s schedule was not extraordinary for the ambitious young people who are trying to advance on the fast track at investment banks, law firms, consultancies and other practitioners of long working hours. The normal career starts with a period of white-collar slavery: 80 or more hours a week of drudgery in air-conditioned offices, with occasional breaks for take-away meals. The tasks eventually become more interesting, but the years of mega-hours drag on. Later, workers often have lives of privileged desperation: lots of money, luxuriant houses and holidays, and a trail of damage.
Deaths from overwork are rare. But exhaustion, family breakdowns and substance abuse are common in high-stress jobs with ultra-long days. The extent of the gradual degradation of character – intelligent and interesting people reduced to narrow-minded careerists – is a matter of ongoing debate.
Long hours were once traditional in factories. That changed. So too it could change in the office, and more easily, since shorter workdays have less effect on output there. These professions don’t need or even obviously benefit from this cult.
So who is responsible for its perpetuation?
Employers deserve some blame. Human Resources departments could brief managers on the extensive psychological research about the damage of overwork. The excuse that mega-hours are somehow good for shareholders is both mistaken and feeble: workers should not suffer unduly just to keep profit up, and profit would not suffer if workers had a chance for a good night’s sleep.