'Absolute Meltdown': Wall Street's Work Till You Drop Culture Under Attack

14 hours ago
Originally published on May 7, 2021 7:02 am

Last year, Anita Ramaswamy hit her breaking point.

She had just joined a Wall Street investment bank in November, working remotely from her parents' home in Arizona. And Ramaswamy found she barely left her childhood bedroom for weeks at a time.

One Friday in December she worked until midnight. It was her birthday.

"I just remember hitting this point of absolute meltdown," Ramaswamy remembers. "Like, there was nothing going through my head except for 'I can't do this anymore. I want to have a life. I want to be a real person. I want to be able to spend time with my family. I want to be able to take time for myself. And I don't even have time to think about it.'"

Today, Wall Street's work-till-you-drop culture is under siege. In March, the extreme nature of it came into full view when a presentation from first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs became public.

One claimed to be working from 9 a.m. till 5 a.m. the next day. One said there was no time to eat, sleep or shower because of the draining nature of the work. "My body physically hurts all the time," one of them wrote. "And mentally, I'm in a really dark place." In response, the company's CEO said the firm would do more to enforce a rule that restricts work on Saturdays.

Burnout in investment banking has been a problem, but the pandemic has made it worse.

"This is a real issue," says Cary Friedman, the global head of human resources at the financial firm Jefferies. "Basically, I think people were on call, or felt like they had to be on call, 24 hours a day."

He says that as the investment bank closed its offices, he and his colleagues worried that exhaustion and isolation could lead to anxiety and depression. Many analysts and associates moved home, or they lived alone in cities under lockdown.

"Many first-year bankers have a lot of drive and an expectation they're going to work long hours, but some banks are recognizing this is an institutional problem too," Cary Friedman, the head of human resources at the financial firm Jefferies, says.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

"When you have nowhere to go, you end up working — a whole lot more than maybe you need to," Friedman says. "But there was really nothing else to do, which is very dangerous."

Long hours can take a toll on bankers' health. After Jonathan Frostick, a project manager at another global bank HSBC, had a heart attack last month, he wrote about the experience in a LinkedIn post that went viral. He was horrified that in that moment of distress, the first thought that came to his mind was "I needed to meet with my manager tomorrow, this isn't convenient."

Frostick decided he needed to dramatically restructure his outlook to work, starting with spending less time on Zoom. "Life literally is too short," he wrote.

Wall Street attracts driven, hard-working individuals, but some banks have recognized that their culture may not be that attractive anymore. They are competing with tech for talent and it is rare for someone to spend an entire career at one company.

During the pandemic, the investment banking business has been busy, which has contributed to burnout. Some banks have responded with extra perks. Jefferies offered Peloton bikes and other workout subscriptions to its employees.

A handful of firms even upped their pay. But Robert Wolf, who was the chairman and CEO of UBS Americas, doesn't think more money is the answer. "Happiness means a lot right now," he says.

His career began in the 1980s at Solomon Brothers, and at that time, competition and greed were celebrated. "It was a bit of the Wild West," Wolf remembers. "It was a very Darwinian environment."

According to Wolf, the ethos was work hard, play hard. But eventually that gave way to work hard, work hard.

"I never understood, even when I was running UBS, why we had to be in an environment where you would be working associates 24/7, looking for that 25th hour," he says.

It may be as simple as that's just the way it is. Or the way it has been.

According to Jefferies' Friedman, even though it can be difficult to get managers to recognize that the workplace is different than it was when they were starting out, having that conversation is critical.

"I think if people aren't learning from the last 14 months, shame on them," he says. "You know, we've got to take advantage of what we've gone through."

What hasn't changed is what attracts many college students to a career that can be crushing: the money.

It's what motivated Ramaswamy, whose path to investment banking began after her sophomore year at Tufts University. During a summer internship, she was wowed by a big bank's pay, perks and prestige. She sat in a front-row seat at a Yankees game, and she went on a yacht cruise.

But when Ramaswamy started her first job, she realized pretty quickly that even though she was making a lot of money, she had no time to spend it.

Ramaswamy has been living with her parents in Arizona during the pandemic. After reaching a breaking point working until midnight on her birthday, she decided to quit her job as an analyst.
Courtney Pedroza for NPR

The pandemic gave her new perspective. It's one thing to work 18-hour days side by side with colleagues who are working the same grueling hours. It's something else entirely when you are doing that alone in your childhood bedroom.

After her birthday breakdown, Ramaswamy sat down for a chat with her parents. They were sad they hadn't seen much of her — even though she'd been back home for weeks.

A few days later, she quit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.