Junior bankers on Wall Street log 100-hour weeks again and stress is mounting

Some are inflating their weekly hours so bosses don’t make them give up their free time, while are understating to avoid breaching 100-hour limits

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To see the stress mounting again on Wall Street’s junior bankers, just look a half-rung higher, at staffers.

Not staff, as in employees, but staffers, the unheralded deputy managers who dole out assignments to trainees. When investment bankers or clients want something done, staffers find underlings for the drudgery. That’s getting trickier as banks exit a slump in deals with thinner headcount and big ambitions for landing new mandates.

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Trainees and staffers alike are now feeling the strain.

A junior banker at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and another at UBS Group AG, for example, privately said they’re inflating their weekly hours in internal tracking systems so bosses don’t make them give up their last bits of free time. At Bank of America Corp., two trainees said they’re instead understating to avoid breaching 100-hour limits, dubbed “tripping the system,” which can prompt a call from HR and stir up trouble for managers.

When banks do run short of junior bankers to crank out analyses and pitch decks, it falls on staffers to tell the bosses tough luck. A Citigroup Inc. staffer recently recalled how nerve-wracking that was her first time.

After emailing a managing director that everyone was too busy, she cried and got physically ill. When the response later arrived — “I am so disappointed in you” — she stared at her screen in angst. She later left.

Interviews with current and recently departed junior bankers and their managers show that 100-hour work weeks, which never went away, are once again becoming more common as investment banks chase a modest but growing flow of deals. The employees asked not to be identified to protect their careers.

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The swelling workloads are testing promises banks made just a few years ago to give trainees breaks and safeguard their health. And, for young bankers, it’s bringing old frustrations back to the fore.

The death on May 2 of Bank of America associate Leo Lukenas from a heart attack — just days after the former Green Beret finished work on a US$2-billion deal — triggered an outpouring of those feelings on online message boards. Though authorities attributed Lukenas’ death to natural causes, anonymous posters vented about being asked to do too much and called for a walkout, which never materialized.

Bank of America has said its executives take junior bankers’ health seriously and that the firm frequently reviews policies to ensure they’re protected. As for how they log time, the firm said, “our practice is clear and we expect employees to accurately record their hours.”

Spokespeople for JPMorgan, UBS and Citigroup declined to comment.

Long hours have always been a facet of Wall Street’s training programs. But unlike the tsunami of activity junior bankers handled during the pandemic, the recent sense in the lower rungs is that much of the work is on spec, as bosses try to position their firms for an upswing, especially once interest rates fall.

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With many desks just starting to see revenue increase, trainees have little leverage to demand better conditions. Peloton exercise bikes that some firms offered a few years ago are now gathering dust because, as a young banker at one boutique firm put it, nobody has time to use them anymore.

“The culture in banking isn’t keeping up with the times and needs of junior bankers,” said Stephan Meier a professor at Columbia Business School. Instead, supervisors keep making the mistake of viewing trainees as resources to be used or wasted, he said.

“Either firms squeeze out as much as possible of their junior bankers, and that’s good for the business, or if they don’t, it hurts the performance of the organization,” Meier said. “That’s the wrong mindset.”

Chest pains

Firms have bolstered safeguards and perks in recent years, such as ensuring some Saturdays off or providing free fitness classes. Yet workloads haven’t been curtailed to allow for it, employees said in interviews. That leaves them to argue with staffers or, worse, anger the more powerful bosses they need to impress.

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One junior banker who left Lazard Inc. late last year said she couldn’t bring herself to seek help, even as her health deteriorated. She felt pressure in her chest while working, Googled “heart attack symptoms” and contacted a medical hotline, which urged her to see a doctor. But she stayed at her desk, worried that if it were a false alarm, bosses would view a trip to a clinic as a poor excuse for blowing deadlines. Feeling worse months later, she quit to start a new career.

A junior banker at another big bank said he also kept working while experiencing chest pain after gulping an energy drink to finish a 100-hour week. He thought about seeing a doctor, but everyone else on his team was pulling the same hours, and he didn’t want to stand out as the one who couldn’t hack it.

A May survey by the social media platform Overheard on Wall Street found junior bankers are putting in an average of about 80 hours a week — equating to more than 11 hours a day including weekends — and sleeping about five hours a night. Yet some of the roughly 200 participants claimed to have notched 140-hour weeks, leaving only four hours a day for sleeping and other necessities.

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Asked to score their mental and physical health on a scale of 1 to 10, the average responses were 2 and 3, respectively, according to a copy of the results seen by Bloomberg.

A question about the pressure on young bankers even made its way into JPMorgan’s annual investor day last month. Jennifer Piepszak, co-head of commercial and investment banking, responded that nothing is more important than the well-being of employees and that managers need to ensure that.

“We can’t just sit in our offices and go through business reviews,” she said. “We have to be out in the field and every one of us are, so that we have a sense of where the pressure might be mounting, and we need to give people the resources to be able to cope.”

Staffer conflicts

At many banks, the role of staffer has existed for decades. They appear in Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, portraying life at Salomon Brothers in the high-flying 1980s, and in John Rolfe and Peter Troob’s Monkey Business, chronicling young bankers at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette during the dot-com bubble.

Though many staffers are mere vice presidents — near the bottom of the management tree — banks typically ask them to ensure higher-ups don’t demand too much from new arrivals. Indeed, a staffer at a bulge-bracket bank said she requested the job so she could help protect junior bankers after her own training at boutique Houlihan Lokey was so rigorous that she began bringing a sleeping bag to the office.

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Still, several junior bankers interviewed by Bloomberg described their staffers as clearly conflicted — more eager to impress rainmakers and climb the ladder than to push back.

A Citigroup employee said that he kept telling his staffer that his weekly hours were surpassing the 100 that the bank’s software would let him log — only to be told that everyone was stretched and that the deals still needed to get done.

‘Selling your soul’

Strolling around Manhattan, it’s easy to find signs of Wall Street’s intense treatment of trainees.

A young man was seen doing push-ups on Park Avenue’s sidewalk Thursday, sweating through his dress clothes with the sun overhead. Asked what was happening, he said he was being punished by his boss for screwing up a pitch deck.

For those who stick with it, the goal remains a high-paying career. At investment banks, such lucre may not be quite as abundant as when formal training programs were set up as a gateway into private partnerships. But the experience is still valuable, with many junior bankers soon defecting to private equity or money management.

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“Going into banking, you are making the conscious decision of giving up your lifestyle,” said Hamilton Lin, co-founder of Wall Street Training & Advisory. “You are selling your soul to the devil, but it’s a fair trade.”

With assistance from Todd Gillespie, Ryan Gould and Peter Eichenbaum


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