A nation of workaholics: Moritz Erhardt worked eight all-nighters in two weeks. For three days in a row he was in the office until 6am

The death of the Merrill Lynch banking intern shines a light on the cult of presenteeism – and the need for a new work culture

I have worked really, really hard for two periods in my life. The first was as an undergraduate, in the last couple of months before my finals. I look back on it now as a kind of fever dream; exhausting but endless, and mildly hallucinogenic. I recall heading to the library in my slippers, subsisting on endless packets of powdered soup, and nurturing intricate theories with a friend about the dynamics of a nascent love triangle at the next table. Once I woke up at 6.51am, six minutes later than prescribed by my revision schedule, and spent the rest of the day in a sickening panic, quite convinced that my dalliance with the snooze button had cost me my future. It only takes a moment thinking about it now to bring a horde of butterflies swarming back into my belly.

The other time was as foreign editor of the The Independent. Anyone who has done such a job will tell you, at great length and particularly if they've been a features writer, that news editing is the most arduous thing you can do on a newspaper; it takes a special sort of lunatic (not me) to manage it for more than a few years. As the middle-man between reporters who want to write the story one way and senior editors who want to headline it another, you are, as one of my superiors memorably put it, "the shit in a shit sandwich". The hours are long, the pressure on your judgement is significant and you have to pretend to know about everything – and the news keeps happening all the time. Any sort of lunch break feels like a dereliction of duty. A day off feels like a reckless invitation for a revolution in the Middle East.

Of course, there are those to whom such efforts will seem puny. Among that number would have been Moritz Erhardt, who was a 21-year-old with aspirations to a career in finance. From an early age, he wrote in an online CV, he had a "persistent aspiration" to succeed and had always been "highly competitive". Sometimes, he added, he had a tendency to be overambitious. He was used, he commented, to "trying to be the best all the time".

That excess of ambition had set him on the path to his dreams. After coming through a ferociously competitive application process, he spent the summer doing an internship at the London office of Merrill Lynch. Friends say that he worked eight all-nighters in two weeks. For three days in a row he was in the office until 6am. Then, in the student apartment in Bethnal Green where he was staying, he collapsed and died. We don't know what caused his death. He reportedly suffered from epilepsy, and may have had a seizure. But seizures can be brought on by exhaustion. And doctors have never been in doubt about the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation, especially combined with stress.

The picture of the intern that has accompanied most of the stories about him this week is heartbreaking. Boyishly handsome, with slicked back hair, he wears a Ralph Lauren shirt, a striped tie, a large, expensive-looking watch and braces. It is so self-consciously the uniform of the high-flying financier that he might as well be a little boy borrowing his father's clothes.

At 21, interns are barely more than children, really. But the world they enter is not accommodating to their youth; instead, it seeks to capitalise on it. They are paid extremely well – more than £40,000 a year pro rata, reportedly, which is significantly more than the average wage in Britain. But that money isn't the point. The point is the extraordinary sums on offer if they earn preferment.

In the service of that goal, investment banking interns such as Moritz Erhardt adopt a lifestyle that is quite alien to most of us. For the duration of this summer-long audition, 110-hour working weeks are not uncommon; caffeine and adrenaline provide the fuel that ought to come from sleep. Because of the cut-throat competition for the few jobs on offer, those who have experienced such a programme speak of an "arms race" to outdo each other, often staying in the office simply to make sure that their rivals don't steal a march. People talk about the fabled "magic roundabout" shift, which sees budding bankers head home in a taxi, shower and change clothes, and get straight back into the waiting car to begin another stint immediately.

"You learn pretty quickly that you don't just have to be good to get one of these jobs, but to make a show of how 'good' you are," one 21-year-old economics graduate who recently completed such a course told the Daily Mail this week. "There were nights when I could have gone home at 11pm, but that would have been career suicide. Instead, I used to pretend to be busy working until 2am, then be back at my desk at 7am." Show your abilities, sure, but also show your loyalty, show your commitment, show your intensity; show you are one of us. This isn't a proper professional environment: it's a frat house.

It is not enough to say that no one is obliged to work at such a pace. It might not be in the rules but there is little doubt that it is in the culture. That's one thing for the staffers, perhaps. They are at least some-what secure in their positions, and stratospherically rewarded for the sacrifices they make. But can the same be said of an intern? Their work – described by one initiate to the Evening Standard as "a lot of checking of documents, a lot of Excel, a lot of PowerPoint" – cannot have been truly essential or, if it was, the business is built on sand. If the carrot is a job that will make you a millionaire – and your performance is measured as much by your presence as your output, and you are still a student, and you are already in the self-selecting group of people who are willing to embrace this lifestyle – are you really going to be thinking carefully about the potential impact on your health?

A Premier League football club that allowed its trialists to complete an ultramarathon would be castigated. The expectation of a bank should be no less for the fact that its trainees are wearing suits instead of running kit. And the fix is so easy. Just make them leave at eight. The news that Merrill Lynch is launching a review of working conditions for junior staff is – if knee-jerk – a move in the right direction, but there are many other banks...

It wasn't always this way. A friend who was a trader in a past life remembers a three-month induction process in the early 1990s: working nine-to-five days, an outward-bound course, social events – and plenty of sleep. While those with dreams of a career in the City have always been setting themselves up for an all-consuming work life, many people say that the overloaded version of the culture that now prevails is a relatively recent innovation. Perhaps it is hardly surprising to learn that institutions which have adopted such an approach to the treatment of their most vulnerable charges should have displayed a similar recklessness when it comes to their investments.

A New Yorker post about the Merrill Lynch intern noted John Maynard Keynes's 1930 prediction that, within a century, no one would have to work more than 15 hours a week – a prophecy, it is safe to say, that will not be fulfilled. The piece also notes that although the average person works far less than they might have in the 19th century, that increase in leisure has not been replicated among the highest earners, whose lifestyle is more like that of our Victorian predecessors. This may partly be because the world of credit instruments and collateralised debt obligations is almost abstract, and hence not subject to the same increases in productivity that have helped the factory worker. But perhaps it is also mindlessly self-perpetuating. You earn so much money because you work so hard, and you work so hard because you earn so much money. Even bankers have been known to feel guilt.

...

My own working life is a bit different now. The deadlines are less frequent, and angry foreign correspondents don't call me after I've got into bed or before I've got out of it. I still think I work pretty hard, but the vein that used to throb in my forehead has gone quiet.

The funny thing is that, in a way, the pressure has increased. On the foreign desk, if I spent three minutes on Facebook in the middle of the day, I never worried about it; it never crossed my mind that my colleagues might wonder if I was pulling my weight. Now that I'm no longer the second person into the office (I never did get there before the home editor), I have to admit that I have more of a sense of performance. Last week, checking the cricket score in the middle of the afternoon, I guiltily flipped back to the transcription of an interview when I heard a colleague behind me. And when I stayed up late to finish a magazine piece, I'm embarrassed to say that I made sure to mention it in an email or two. If you're going to work so late, you definitely want someone to know that you did.

This is, of course, a crazy way to think about work. Your presence at the desk is not necessarily analogous to your output; if you perform best by chewing things over for a bit and then typing in a frenzy, you are no less valuable to your employer than the person next to you who proceeds in a steadier fashion. There are plenty of studies that show the efficiency gains to be made by working from home or by taking frequent breaks. Maybe I'm a goody-two-shoes, but I can't be the only person who finds that such an approach engenders a pang of anxiety.

Culturally, we tend to view work as a means to an end. (That's even true among the high-flyers at Merrill Lynch; the heartbroken father issued a statement explaining that his son's plan was to "work really hard for a few years and to do something good afterwards"). As a result, we may accept these daft habits of mind in a way that we wouldn't about our private life. But the distinction is a false one. Work is, after all, what we spend most of our waking hours doing, even if we don't find ourselves on the magic roundabout. It is hard to be happy if you don't feel at ease while you are doing it. It is hard to feel at ease if you are more worried about the perception of your work than the reality.

Everything about Moritz Erhardt's short life suggests that he would have done his job extraordinarily well. "He was the superstar," one of his fellow interns said. "He worked very hard and was very focused … he was tipped for greatness." That doesn't make his death any more tragic, of course. But it does make his story especially poignant. When I read that informal eulogy, I thought: he could have given himself a break. Everyone was already impressed.

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