On my first day at secondary school, a group of us were taken by older boys and thrown down a grass bank on to the football pitch. The drop was about 12 feet. Four of them held us by our arms and legs, and swung us right up and out, before letting go. The landing was painful. No bones were broken, not that time. We were bruised, but picked ourselves up. We quickly realised that the ones who laughed it off were accepted as OK. Those who made a fuss were marked down, probably for further punishment.
A few years later, and it was our turn. Sure enough, we chucked the first-formers down the slope. It was what you did. It had been done to us, now we were going to do it to them.
I could add: “And it didn’t do us any harm.” Because that’s how initiations work. Same as when we became prefects and constructed all manner of penalties for the juniors, justifying our sadism because we were only inflicting on them what had been done to us. Same at university, where, if you wanted to get on, it helped if you participated in a drinking ritual entailing downing a pint in one go at numerous pubs along the same street. Same in the City, where at my law firm we would stay up all night proof-reading documents and be expected to be back in, bright and raring to go, the following morning.
Did we complain? No chance. If we did, we knew our pleading would fall on deaf ears. Worse, it would end our careers there and then – the partners who ordered us to stay had all been through the same process themselves. And it hadn’t done them any harm.
By coincidence, two cases have been highlighted this week which go the heart of this pervasive, twisted culture. One is the deaths of three Army reservists on an SAS selection exercise. The inquest has heard evidence from a soldier who collapsed on the same march in July 2013 that he was told to keep going in the stifling heat, even though medical staff feared he might die.
Another is the death of a banker at Goldman Sachs. Sarvshreshth Gupta worked as a tech analyst in the bank’s San Francisco office. He was from New Delhi, India, and had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Sarvshreshth began working at Goldman last autumn. He was 22 when he died this April.
Sarvshreshth’s father, Sunil, has published a heart-wrenching essay, “A Son Never Dies”. Sunil said that his son moaned about the intense workload, but claimed he could handle it. “Papa,” he said, “I do not get enough sleep. I work 20 hours at a stretch.” During certain weeks, he was working on weekends too.
The son quit Goldman, but was then persuaded to rejoin. “He calls us and says, ‘It is too much. I have not slept for two days, have a client meeting tomorrow morning, have to complete a presentation, my VP is annoyed and I am working alone in my office.’” Soon after, he was found dead.
The Army will say it did its utmost to assist the three soldiers; Goldman will argue that it takes the welfare of its employees very seriously. I don’t doubt them.
But by the same token, there will be those in the armed forces and in banking, who will shrug and say that these things happen, that some people snap and can’t make it.
Somehow, it has to be driven home to those people – and I don’t mean in the Army or at Goldman, but everywhere – that this is simply unacceptable, that pushing someone to the limit of their physical and mental endurance can no longer be tolerated.
It’s not as if these were one-off incidents. Last week, an officer cadet collapsed and died on a 30-mile yomp across Dartmoor as part of an exercise to become a Royal Marine. In August 2013, a Bank of America intern, Moritz Erhardt, died after reportedly working consecutive all-nighters at the bank’s London office. Again last week, a 29-year-old banker from Moelis & Co died after leaping from his luxury apartment building in downtown Manhattan.
Some banks have resorted to banning their employees from reading emails at the weekends and ordering them to take Saturdays and Sundays off. Still the deaths and the breakdowns continue. Why? Because the young bankers know that to succumb is to fail. To not be on top of a case, to be unprepared, to have not put in the hours, is seen as weakness, and their ascent is over.
In Fenchurch Street, in the City, a new branch of the Priory clinic is doing a roaring trade. It was launched in response to precisely this issue, the human casualties of the bosses who do not listen. “They’re not open to listening to people saying, ‘I’m not coping, I’m finding this really difficult’,” said Tony Urwin, occupational psychologist and managing director of the Priory Wellbeing Centre, when it opened. “They think that they went through it and others should to.”
In selling the idea of the centre, the Priory quoted a report from the Office for National Statistics which found that 15.2 million working days were lost to stress or depression in Great Britain – nearly 10 times as many days as were lost to migraines and headaches. More shaming, though, was the finding from the Priory’s own research that 71 per cent of people they spoke to would worry about telling their employer if they had a mental health condition, for fear of getting a negative response.
These are statistics we can do something about. Similarly, we can, surely, be more careful and considerate when testing would-be soldiers. We need to stop being so macho, to realise that it’s not always acceptable to do to others as was done to us.
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