Hardworking Chinese financiers grapple with Bank of America intern's death
Experienced financiers say key to long-term success is achieving life-work balance
Stunned by the recent death of a 21-year-old investment bank intern in London, finance professionals in Hong Kong and China say they are constantly striving to achieve a balanced life.
This is despite toiling in the highly stressful industry which the hard-working Moritz Erhardt was trying to establish himself in. The young German was at the end of a seven-week internship in London, earlier this month, when he collapsed and died at home after working extremely long hours.
A vice president banker at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong, who prefers to stay anonymous, told the South China Morning Post she was shocked to learn about Erhardt’s death - especially given his young age.
While lamenting Erhardt’s death, she admitted that longer hours and “all-nighters” were all part of a banker’s life.
The vice president recalled that she had only managed to get two hours’ sleep for nine days in a row while working on an IPO project last year.
“Even though it didn’t kill me, the long hours did leave me with heaps of health problems,” she said.
While investment bankers, especially junior analysts, are expected to work long hours and pull all-nighters, she said bankers’ fates depend largely on the preferences of their bosses. Those who emphasise “face time” usually expect their workers to spend longer hours in the office.
“I am lucky to have a good boss who makes my relatively balanced life possible,” she said.
But luck is a rare commodity.
“I have read so many reports about sudden deaths of young professionals who live a stressful work life,” she said. “It has almost stopped being surprising.”
Li Kai, chief executive of Bosera Asset Management (International), the Hong Kong-based offshore arm of Bosera, died in March of a brain haemorrhage. In another case in March, Mark Liinamaa, a middle-aged senior research analyst with Citigroup's Asia natural resources team in Hong Kong, died of a heart attack.
Prioritising fitness over other tasks, Zhao Tian, a Hong Kong-based hedge fund manager, said he works out for one hour a day to reduce stress.
“You have to draw a line and guard your personal space from being invaded by work,” he said. Zhao, a father, husband, dog owner and an enthusiastic runner, says even though it’s hard, it’s vital for finance professionals to exercise regularly and stay fit.
Warning against excessive socialising and drinking, which seems more common among younger members of Hong Kong's more than 200,000 financial employees, Zhao said it requires wisdom and stamina to strike a balance between life and work.
“Either you live to work,” he said, “or you work to live.”
The picture in Beijing is not that different.
"Rose", a senior manager at a "Big Four" accountancy firm in the capital city, recalled the death of a junior colleague of the multi-international company last year. She said while the firm continues to seek high businesses growth, the hiring has been lagging behind.
As a result, workers are forced to work on more projects and longer hours. More colleagues are resigning as a result, she said.
Even for investment bankers, who have been called "masters of the universe" and often seen as making an absurd amount of money, the pressure can be too much.
The vice president banker at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong said she noted that the industry’s appeal for young recruits had been diminishing in recent years. Many young workers now come from more affluent families compared with 10 or 20 years ago. Therefore, they were less motivated to trade long hours for an enviable paycheck, she said.
But resigning was not an option for many others, who have stayed in the high-paying profession for so long that a fresh start somewhere else was either unattractive or not viable.
“I didn't quit when I pulled all these all- nighters years ago, so how could I quit now?” the vice president said.