Aug 3 2014
A friend recommended this article to me recently that talked about how office workers in China are literally working themselves to death. Working on Wall Street can certainly feel that way in many ways (the highest highs come with the lowest lows), and with the news that a 21-year old intern working for Bank of America (BofA) collapsed and died last year after he worked until 6 am for three straight days (he also suffered from epilepsy, according the CNBC article), banks put forth explicit guidelines limiting the number of hours interns, and now first-year investment banking analysts, can work.
Every year, the long hours that junior bankers put in become a hot topic, and every year banks encourage their employees to dial their hours back. At all of the banks I have worked for, they gave the same directive on this issue in 2003 as they did in 2013. The reality, however, is that sometimes a banker has to put in the 80, 90, or 100 hours in a week to ensure that he or she gets the job done right. One mistake can cost a firm millions of dollars in fees should a client balk at or pull out of a deal due to a lack of accuracy and due diligence. It’s the nature of client service work, which is why every year, the situation for front office professionals on Wall Street does not and probably will never change.
So what is it really like in the trenches of an investment bank (clearly the unfortunate events in China and the death of a BofA intern reflect a tragic extreme) and what is work-life balance really like at the senior executive level? First, it really depends on what part of the bank you want to examine. Hours can vary widely, even within front office banking and product groups in the same department, but to give a few examples, equity research teams generally log in 70-75 hours a week (and perhaps 40% more during earnings), while their counterparts in corporate finance/M&A power through 90-to 100-hour weeks regularly.
To answer the second part of the question, work-life balance for senior executives can mean so many different things to all sorts of people that it would be futile to attempt to generalize and attest some kind of meaning to what would be a flawed conclusion. Type A personalities may only find their center when working a lot of hours so to them a “good” work-life balance is achieved through an 80-hour week. To others, maybe it’s 50 hours. An executive’s work-life balance is fundamentally driven by individual choice, and derived from the immediate needs of the business.
To dig a little deeper, Vice Presidents and above are allowed to make a decision: keep working (for however long they want or need), or go home. The days of being micromanaged at this level are generally over and it’s up to that person to decide what is best for the firm, her clients, and for her personally. Starting times are less strict, with the most senior executives who I observed and considered to be the most successful in their work and in their home lives, all arriving no later than 6:30 a.m. (and often times much, much earlier) Monday to Friday. They ended their days at a normal, decent hour and made it a priority to be with their families, but with such a schedule they still clocked in 60-70 hour weeks. No one tells them when they need to be in, and there is no official policy dictating when they can leave. It is about the business’ and clients’ immediate need first. Taking this into account, the work-life balance for finance executives is simply what they make it to be.
At the junior levels, it is not as straightforward. Analysts and associates still do have choice as to when they want to go home or what time they want to come in, but the consequences for making the wrong choice can be dire. Work that extends late into the night is generally driven by continuously turning, improving and editing client presentation documents that must be completed by the next morning. Failure and delay resulting from aborted work from the night before can and has led to termination. There is simply little slack given when it’s time to execute, and documents must be proofed to perfection by the junior staff. From this perspective, junior bankers obviously have a much harder path to a “healthy” work-life balance, but this is exactly what they willingly signed up for to start their careers with a challenge.
Long hours, weekend work and demanding clients will forever be inherent to the most attractive jobs in financial services. The exacting and value-driven nature of the investment banking business will necessarily lead to high-pressure standards that make achieving work-life balance difficult.
What is clear, however, is that the situation and circumstances in China will most assuredly never happen on Wall Street. There is too much cultural difference between China and the U.S., too many safeguards set by HR, and practically speaking, too many managers on every investment banking floor who will intervene and order a young banker to go home when it is clear that that employee is no longer productive.
To conclude, the type A’s in finance are very proud about their capacity to work arguably more than their peers, but they push themselves always within reason and rationality, and always because they choose to do so.